(Illustration by Christopher Boffoli)

When Nathan Bernard took the PSAT his freshman and sophomore years of high school, he admits, he didn’t take the test seriously.

“I don’t think I brought a calculator,” the blond 17-year-old said, laughing, on a recent Sunday afternoon at his home in Alexandria, Va.

Back then, Bernard was running cross country and playing on the basketball team at Thomas A. Edison High School, a campus of about 1,900 students in the Fairfax County Public Schools system. His grades weren’t great, but he didn’t care that much; college was still a long way off.

Now a senior with eyes on a spot in the engineering program at Virginia Tech, Bernard has quit sports to focus on his grade-point average. He’s a member of the National Honor Society, takes advanced math courses and tutors other students in the writing center at Edison.

But Bernard is after more than just a 4.0. He wants to score at least 1360 out of a possible 1600 on the SAT to make his college application look even more attractive. The Virginia Tech College of Engineering accepted only about 55 percent of applicants into this year’s freshman class, according to the college.

This time, Bernard’s preparation began before Christmas with once-a-week, two-hour, in-home tutoring sessions with an instructor from Varsity Tutors, a St. Louis-based company with tutors throughout the country. After the holidays, he started tutoring sessions again about a month before he was set to take the SAT in March and also attended courses at Edge Ed in Springfield, Va., for additional help with the optional, more difficult math subject test he took in May. He studied more on his own before taking the SAT again on June 4, hoping to beat his previous score of 1300.

That all came with a price tag of about $2,500 for the family of four — “easily, between the different ones,” said Mary Bernard, Nathan’s mother.

But even that’s relatively inexpensive when comparing Varsity Tutors’ $64-an-hour services in the Washington area with the hourly rates of the better-known Kaplan Test Prep, for example, which range from $2,399 for 12 hours of private tutoring to $5,999 for 36. (Packages of 20 hours or more come with unlimited access to online courses that also prepare students for the SAT.) The Princeton Review charges $1,400 for 10 hours of private tutoring and $3,000 for 24.

And while Bernard and his parents saw value in making the financial sacrifice for tutoring and other methods of test prep, the teen’s favorite resource, recommended by his Varsity tutor, turned out to cost nothing at all.

In June 2015, SAT administrator College Board partnered with Khan Academy, a nonprofit education organization, to launch Official SAT Practice. The free online feature includes tutorial videos and practice tests with immediate grading, as well as information about the new SAT released in March, to help students like Bernard who are looking for extra ways to ensure they’re prepared for the test.

College Board critics say the partnership is the latest attempt by the administrators of the SAT to stay relevant. In 2012, the ACT surpassed the SAT as the most popular college admissions exam in the country.But the collaboration with Khan Academy is also seen by many as a step toward bridging the gap between those who can afford to pay for SAT prep and those who can’t.

(Illustration by Christopher Boffoli)

On a Monday night in late June, nearly two dozen teenagers gathered at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington’s FBR Branch in Southeast Washington for an introduction to the Khan Academy’s SAT prep resources. In a room where the entrance was decorated with banners from universities like Penn State, Rutgers and Yale, students sat at a row of computers lining a wall — some huddled in groups of two or three — to create profiles and test their knowledge on the site.

Teen program director LeVar Jones said he didn’t know of any students at the club who were engaged in SAT prep outside of what they may have received at school. Many of the teens live in low-income neighborhoods nearby, and their families can’t afford to hire a personal tutor.

According to College Board data on SAT takers in the class of 2015, students whose family incomes were above $200,000 received an average score of 1720 on the critical reading, math and writing portions combined out of the possible 2400 on that version of the test. Students whose families made $20,000 or less scored an average of 1314.

“A lot of these kids, they may not be talking about SAT prep at home,” said Jones. “They may not be talking about college at home ... so this is it.”

Since the launch of Official SAT Practice, the College Board has begun working with schools and nonprofit organizations across the country, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, YMCA and the Parent Teacher Association, to offer the program where there are mentors.

Jones said the no-cost effort is a way to “level the playing field” and unstack the odds for students like Reginald Jackson. At FBR, the senior dance student at Duke Ellington School of the Arts was among many who were hearing about the free SAT prep resources for the first time. Jackson, 18, took the SAT in May without studying for it.

“I just didn’t know there were [free] resources,” he said. “You had to buy the prepping book, and I didn’t have the money for it.”

Now that Jackson knows about Khan Academy and will be able to use it at the Boys & Girls Club, he’s thinking about retaking the SAT. “I think if I had the prep I would get more probably right instead of guessing all the time,” he said.

As of October, the College Board had counted more than 2.3 million Official SAT Practice users. And according to the nonprofit’s survey of SAT takers in March, May and June, three times as many students used the Khan Academy resources to prepare for the test than those who paid for commercial test prep. Their data also indicate that students across all income levels are using the free resources, said Cyndie Schmeiser, chief of assessment for the College Board.

In a 2009 report for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the most recent large-scale study evaluating the effect of test prep on scores, Derek Briggs of the University of Colorado at Boulder found that commercial coaching improves a student’s overall SAT test score by an average of about 30 points — much less than many people assume and some test prep companies advertise.

While the free Khan Academy resources may narrow performance gaps, Briggs said it’s too early to tell whether the Official SAT Practice will produce the same gains as commercial test prep.

“What we just don’t know at this point is how good the resources are,” said Briggs, a professor of quantitative methods and policy analysis. “The empirical kind of research question is: Are the kinds of things you can find online for free that provide you the opportunity to practice questions and also perhaps give feedback — how does that compare with the sort of experience that a student has with a human tutor that is giving real-time feedback, and also not just feedback on how you’ve done on a question, but actual instruction?”

Live feedback and instruction, as well as high teacher quality, make services like Kaplan’s worth the cost, said Lee Weiss, Kaplan’s vice president of college admissions programs, which recently partnered with ACT Inc. to provide free, live online instruction to low-income students.

“Khan Academy is not two-way. You’re watching videos, you’re doing practice problems,” Weiss said, adding that having an instructor to bounce questions off of or to interact with both in and out of class makes a big difference.

In addition to private tutoring, Kaplan offers packages for online SAT prep sessions starting at $799. A three-hour session on a Thursday night before test day in May was led by an energetic Coach Greg. On this platform, students are able to type questions for their coach and chime in to answer a practice question.

Nathan Bernard enjoyed the accessibility of the Khan Academy SAT prep and recommended it to friends, but he’s not sure the Official SAT Practice by itself is enough.

“The biggest thing that SAT tutors actually do that is more beneficial than studying on your own is ... giving you tips and tricks” for doing problems more quickly and easily, he said.

The College Board is taking note. Khan Academy recently began streaming live videos on Facebook, and long-term plans for Official SAT Practice include more interactive elements and ways for students to connect with subject-matter experts, Schmeiser said.

“More to come,” she said, “and very soon.”

Natalie Gross is the Latino Ed Beat blogger for the Education Writers Association.
Email us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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