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  •   Q&A with Ben Baron

    Ben Baron
    Ben Baron

    "Levey Live," appears each Tuesday from 12 to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It is a live, moderated discussion offering users the chance to ask questions directly of the people who make the news and the people who report it.

    Bob Levey
    Bob Levey
    Todd Cross/The Post

    Good afternoon. I'm your host, Washington Post columnist, Bob Levey. Are you a student whose blood runs cold at the very thought of the SAT? Or perhaps you're a parent worried about how well your child will do on college or graduate school admission testing. If so, you'll probably have more than a few questions for my guest today, Ben Baron, the Mid-Atlantic regional director of the Kaplan Educational Centers.

    Before joining Kaplan, Baron was an independent college admissions consultant. He also worked for three years as an assistant director of admissions at Harvard Business School. Among many other services, Kaplan Educational Centers (a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company) offers test preparation courses.

    You may submit your questions for Ben Baron now.

    On Friday, please join me for "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," an open-agenda conversation about anything on your mind, in the news or in my Monday through Friday columns . Have a question about D.C. politics, consumer issues, or world affairs? Bring it up on "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," and let the Webbed world know where you stand.

    Washington, DC: What did you make of the recent study which demonstrated that courses such as Kaplan and Princeton review have a negligible effect on SAT scores (30 points greater at the high end of the range?)

    Ben Baron: There were a bunch of problems with the study. Actually, the results showed that companies like Kaplan had much higher score improvements while other prep options had smaller improvements. The irony is that while ETS says that preparing for the exam doesn't help much, they themselves are selling test prep books and software.

    Bob Levey: As the parent of a high school junior, I'm trying not to climb the walls over The College Dance, but I'm not having much success. What (other than martinis) do you recommend for keeping parents in their chairs?

    Ben Baron: First--don't panic.
    Second--get on the ground and crawl to the nearest exit. No, wait, that's in case of fire.
    You're going through the same stresses as millions of parents across the country. And even though it may seem hard to keep your child focused on the admissions process, keep in mind that it's ultimately your child deciding where he or she wants to go to school. So guide her, encourage her, keep her moving forward--but ultimately, trust and respect her judgment.

    Olney, Maryland: I got the feeling that the reason for adjusting the scoring of the SATs was because the scores were on the decline, and it was mostly a "feel good" measure rather than for a good reason; and that the change makes it more difficult objectively to properly compare statistics before and after, and subjectively reduces the "pressure" of students to work at doing better now that the "bar" is set lower. Am I way off on my view?

    Ben Baron: While your view may seem a little cynical, it's likely there's some truth in it. It did seem like a somewhat arbitrary way to boost all scores. ON the other hand, it did make sense to reconfigure the scores so that the average would return to 500 on both the Math and the Verbal. It had gotten hard to determine whether a student had done better on math or verbal. The downside is that it's now hard for parents and children to compare their scores.

    potomac, md: I understand that most graduate entrance exams are
    now given by computer.
    Are there plans to convert the
    SAT from pencil and paper to
    computer-administrated as well?

    Ben Baron: Over time it's likely that the SAT will switch to computer, but not within the next couple of years. While their may be 100,000 students taking a particular grad school exam during a year, their are more than a million high school students taking the SAT. The logistics are rather challenging to say the least.

    Bob Levey: Are SAT's really an accurate predictor of college performance? I humbly submit my own story into evidence. I got a perfect score on the SAT's (1600), yet I barely graduated with a 2.2 average. Reason: I spent far too much time studying female anatomy, and working at the college newspaper. How could the SATs have predicted either of those?

    Ben Baron: Your case is a great example of why the SAT has as much credence as it does. While it can't measure how hard a student will work, or how committed he'll be (to his studies that is), it is an effective measure of "information processing skills," so you can be a lousy student and a great test taker. The SAT is trying to get at who has the potential to be a good student, not necessarily who will actually be a good student.

    Durham, NC: Mr. Baron, I was wondering if you thought it was fair that only privileged kids are able to receive additional test preparation -- doesn't that make the tests biased towards the upper classes?

    Ben Baron: You raise a very valid point. To the extent that test preparation can influence scores (and it definitely can), it's critically important that all students be aware of the prep options that exist. And that's why companies like mine (pardon the small plug) are introducing programs into schools to make test preparation available to students who either were unaware of the option or could not otherwise afford it.

    Rockville, MD: It seems like the trend among
    high school students is towards "early decision" applications. Three young people in our neighborhood were accepted this week at tough schools, and are now able to relax a bit. Is early decision a good idea for a student?

    Ben Baron: Depends on the student. If a student has her heart set on a particular school, then by all means early decision makes sense. But if a student is casting a wider net, or is unsure of where she really wants to go, then it may make more sense to go the "traditional" route.

    Woodbridge, VA: How closely do college admissions boards look past the numbers to give weight to the entire application---including extracurricular activities, community service, part-time jobs etc? [edited for space]

    Ben Baron: THe first challenge of any applicant is to demonstrate that you can handle the load academically, and so the "numbers" i.e. grades and test scores will definitely be important. At the same time, competitive schools have no trouble attracting candidates with good grades and SAT's, so the admissions boards look very closely at the total person. Your activities, interests, and overall perspective as communicated in the essays and interviews will play a major role in most admissions decisions.

    Bob Levey: Is there such a thing as a "good-enough SAT score?" Let's say that Junior gets 1300 the first time out. That's good enough to get him into just about any school in the country. Why should he take the test again?

    Ben Baron: The problem with "good enough" scores is that you don't know whether their good enough until after the decision is rendered. In fact there are students with 1500 SATs and good grades getting rejected from top colleges every year. The better way for a student to think about it is, "Is this my best possible score, or can I go higher with more or better preparation?"

    Bob Levey: Half an hour remaining with our guest, Ben Baron of Kaplan Educational Centers

    Potomac, MD: Is it true that colleges are giving SAT tests less weight now than in previous years? Are they considering doing away with the SAT?

    Ben Baron: The short answer is no, despite a fair amount of rhetoric, there is no widespread movement to do away with the SAT or it's lesser known cousin, the ACT. In an age of competitive admissions, these test provide far too valuable data to be done away with, despite the occasional outcry about their fairness or limitations as a measure of future performance.

    Olney, Maryland: Looking back "a few years" when I took an SAT prep course, I would say that the object of the course was to make the student more familiar and comfortable both with the types of questions and with the way the questions are asked on the SAT. The real benefit is probably in reducing the stress of taking the test and thus increasing the speed and assurance of the student while taking it, plus there were some "neat tricks" to deal quickly with some questions that might be encountered--some of which I still remember. Would you say that this is the method through which the courses are helping the student to improve their scores?

    Ben Baron: You've hit on some of the key benefits of taking a prep course. Certainly, familiarity with the questions types and format is critical as well as a way to reduce test stress (a common hindrance to high performance). Also you identify the "tricks" what we like to call "strategies" for weaving through the many potential pitfalls on the exam. In addition, it's worth mentioning the pure content review. It's very hard to apply shortcuts to a math question if you don't understand the underlying concepts. That's crucial also.

    Bob Levey: Do children from private and parochial schools do better on the SAT's than children from public schools?

    Ben Baron: I haven't seen data on this, but I do know that there is some correlation between family income and test scores. Similarly, there is a correlation between parents' education
    level and test scores. So while there may be higher average scores among private school students (I don't know for sure) it's more a function of socioeconomic factors than quality of classroom experience.


    Ben Baron: No, you'll not have to raid your retirement accounts to pay for your children's education. It may be worth looking into the new education IRA's which allow you to put aside tax deferred money to fund educational expenses. Be aware that trust accounts set up in your child's name will be valued at a much higher percentage than your own savings, so what are commonly referred to as "UTMA" accounts can work at cross purposes with your ability to qualify for aid.

    fairfax station, va.: my 7th grader, a straight-A student, usually scores about the 90th percentile on the standardized national tests he takes. Can you correlate that roughly to an SAT score a few years out, assuming normal learning and studying in the interim?

    Ben Baron: I would be wary of drawing any conclusions at this point. The standardized tests your child is taking now are, to some degree, content driven. That is, they measure what he knows about a particular subject. By contrast, the SAT is an exam that rewards critical thinking skills and efficiency of information processing. Content is secondary.

    Bob Levey: Many parents (and probably many kids) apply to "name" schools because they assume that they'll get the best possible education there. But at many Ivy League schools, for example, undergraduates never see professors, or classes of fewer than 50. Why isn't this better understood by applicants and parents alike?

    Ben Baron: Ahhh, the question of the ages. An Accord may drive as well as a Mercedes, but you may still want that Mercedes.
    The lure of a "name" school can be quite strong, for a student, but probably more often, for the parent. The elite schools have largely earned their reputations and they are great places to go and learn, but there are hundreds of other outstanding schools that may in fact better meet a particular students needs and desires. Seek them out.

    Springfield, VA: Mr. Baron,

    As I was finishing up high school about 10 years ago, it seemed like (at least in my case and that of my close friends) getting into college was the responsibility of the student. These days one hears about parents spending large amounts of money on "admissions consultants" and otherwise taking the lead in their children's college application process. Does this actually happen more often these days, or do we just hear about it more frequently?

    Ben Baron: As the competition to get into the top schools has heated up in recent years, admissions consulting has become a real growth industry. The problem is that it's sometimes hard to distinguish a legitimate consultant from one who has little knowledge or insight into the process. The good ones can help, so don;t rule them out summarily.

    Bob Levey: You mentioned earlier that colleges look at "the whole kid" when making admissions decisions. But which is better--to have one extracurricular activity about which you are passionate, or many activities that you've sampled here and there?

    Ben Baron: While both approaches can be effective, I think most admissions folks would lean toward the former. Through passionate involvement in a single, or relatively few activities, a student can communicate commitment, dedication, perseverance in a way that he couldn't with a laundry list of stuff.

    Potomac, MD: Is there any difference between the Kaplan SAT program vs. the student just doing the SAT tests from practice books?

    Ben Baron: There is a great deal of learning available in a classroom setting that you simply can't get out of books alone. It's not an apples to apples comparison. Having an instructor guide a class, be available to answer questions, propose alternate strategies is invaluable, as is the opportunity to hear other students ask questions that you yourself may not have even thought about. All of that adds up to a much more robust experience than simply buying a book. It also forces a level of discipline that's hard to achieve through self study. Not impossible, but hard.

    Bob Levey: That's it for today. Thanks to our guest, Ben Baron. Be sure to join us for next Tuesday's edition of "Levey Live," when our guest will be the executive editor of The Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr. Don't forget the Friday edition of our show, "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," which appears from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time. It's an anything-goes Q-and-A program. Special program note: Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, will appear at 6 p.m. tonight on a live impeachment chat show on

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