As Washington-area high school juniors and seniors begin the task of getting into college, thousands of them are cramming for the entrance examination required by most American institutions of higher learning -- the SATs, or Scholastic Aptitude Tests. Although there is disagreement about whether coaching can actually improve a student's score on the SAT (which may range from 200 to 800 on each of two sections measuring verbal and math skills), more and more are studying with private coaching firms and an increasing number of school-sponsored programs, hoping they'll top the magic number needed to enter a chosen college.

"Upper-middle-class parents in this area are afraid their children won't be able to live in the style they are now living in. They think the prestige colleges will pave the way," said Diana Epstein, director of College Planning Service Inc., a Bethesda counseling service. "There tends to be a great deal of emphasis on taking these SAT courses. People are afraid if they don't, they will be at a disadvantage."

"There's no question that this college game is a pressure-packed operation," said Fred Snyder, assistant principal at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. "Indirectly the pressure is on the public schools because it is good propaganda to have students going to Ivy League schools where you need high SATs. So we've been offering a 20-hour SAT course after school."

Churchill is not unusual. Largely as a result of parental pressure, virtually all the area school districts offer SAT or PSAT coaching classes to their senior high school students. In Fairfax County alone, there are 50 after-school courses being offered this year. Last year there were only eight. Most of the coaching programs offered by public schools cost about $40, and, unlike some private coaching courses, do not hold out hope for dramatic score increases. Instead they emphasize that these "refresher" courses help students brush up on math, widen their vocabularies, hone some reading skills and relieve test-taking anxiety.

When expectations are pegged too high, results can sometimes be disappointing. At T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria last fall, a private SAT tutoring firm came in with a $130 program, promising to raise the average student's score by 100 points. Some teachers and students balked at the cost, urging the school to switch back to its own in-house $20 SAT prep class.

"The scores just didn't go up, in fact some even dropped," said James McClure, T.C. Williams guidance director. "I felt the price was ridiculous and students could have gone out and bought a Barron's SAT booklet and done it on their own. We are switching back to our own course."

At Georgetown Day School in Northwest Washington, where students typically score about 100 points above the SAT national average, an SAT coaching class was dropped last year. Says guidance director Leigh Sherrill, "Some scores improved, some stayed the same, a few scores declined. Normally we don't recommend these courses unless the scores are quite low and the student is highly motivated to put a lot of effort into the work. When the student is required by one of these courses to do all the homework to raise his score, it creates a difficult bind. Students are best served putting their energy into school work."

Sandy Horowitz, an adult education specialist in Montgomery county, says that the more expensive SAT prep courses are "having a difficult time getting students" since public schools started offering similar classes. In Montgomery County the most popular after-school class is SAT prep. This fall, 21 high schools around the county offered a five-week $40 course which gave students 10 hours of coaching in math and 10 hours in verbal skills.

"Students usually take the SAT in their junior year to test the winds and then take the prep courses if their scores aren't high enough," said Lloyd Johnson, Langley High School college and career planning center director. "These students know that some colleges go through and reject students who don't have a magic score in some area. They are under some pressure taking the tests."

Eric Ebel, 16, a senior at Langley, is probably typical of the kind of student who enrolls in a private coaching course. He had a 3.2 grade-point average, yet scored a disappointing 340 on the verbal and 580 in math the first time he took SATs. He took a preparation course and managed to raise his test scores 110 points in verbal and 80 points in math.

"The tutoring helps because it shows you how to sit down and memorize the vocabulary words and take the test," said Ebel. "I would sit there and try to answer the question the first time, instead of skipping hard ones and going back. I was more relaxed the second time."

Students who choose privately run SAT preparation courses pay about $175 for 24 hours of coaching. They can expect to raise their scores on an average of between 25 and 50 points in both verbal and math sections of the test, according to Sue Gurland, executive director of Traveling Tutors. "There are so many variables. . . . A score can go up if a student attends all the sessions, practices the homework, really makes an effort to work on his weak spots."

Some high school students, fearful that low SAT scores will haunt them to the grave, go to SAT crash courses simply to get moral support for another try, Gurland said.

The veteran test-coaching expert in the country, Stanley H. Kaplan of New York, has made a career out of filling the gaps in high school students' education for the last 40 years. There are 85 Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Centers across the country, including one in Washington that last year tutored 350 students -- a 40 percent increase over the previous year. For $325 Kaplan students go through 11 four-hour class sessions, 150 additional hours of taped reinforcement available at the center in Northwest Washington, and are given home lesson plans to complete as well.

"This isn't just a crash course," said Rosalie M. Sporn, co-administrator of Kaplan's Washington education center. "We never sell a course by saying your score will go up so much because we wouldn't want to imply that every student scores high after the classes. If a student is motivated and applies himself to the program, it is possible to increase the SAT score 100 points, our nationwide average combined (math and verbal.)"

"Obviously nobody is going to say he can work a miracle in two months of SAT classes. You can't teach six or eight or eleven years of school in six weeks," said John Akins, placement director for Traveling Tutors. "But you can rev up things. You can gear students toward thinking in a particular area. You can remind them of things in the brain that need to be stirred up a bit."

Educators have long pondered the question of whether the SAT tests measure a child's aptitude and special way of thinking or if they simply measure how well a student has mastered the art of test taking.

Both The College Board and the Educational Testing Service have come under attack by the National Education Association, parent-teacher groups and consumer activists for administering what they consider "culturally biased tests." Attached to this controversy is the test- coaching dispute. "Any fool can look at one of these tests and see that preparation has to make a difference," wrote James Fallows in The Atlantic. "Why such resistance to such a self-evident truth? Most likely it is because coaching, if effective, threatens to upset the whole apple cart, by suggesting that what the tests measure can be fairly quickly changed."

"I have mixed feelings about these SAT courses," said Lawrence E. Gladieux, executive director of the Washington office of The College Board, a nonprofit organization of more than 2,500 schools which pays the Educational Testing Service to develop the Sp couAT. "I believe it is important for students to have a comfort level going into the test and know what they are getting into. But, on the other hand, I am concerned about the overemphasis on preparation for the test. An attempt to cram for the test may be futile and a distraction from the regular school curriculum."

The College Board, in a message to students this year, warned that "short-term drill and cramming are likely to have little effect; longer-term preparation that develops skills and abilities can have greater effect." The Board tells students that studies of many high school test preparation programs show students' scores increase an average of about 10 points in verbal and 15 points in math, but some scores have increased 25 to 30 points. SAT score increases of 20 to 30 points correspond to about three additional questions answered correctly.

Research for this story was done by Jane Podesta.