Saturday, May 23, 2009

Do test-prep courses improve SAT scores?

Barely--according to this WSJ article:

Families can spend thousands of dollars on coaching to help college-bound students boost their SAT scores. But a new report finds that these test-preparation courses aren't as beneficial as consumers are led to believe.

The report, to be released Wednesday by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, criticizes common test-prep-industry marketing practices, including promises of big score gains with no hard data to back up such claims. The report also finds fault with the frequent use of mock SAT tests because they can be devised to inflate score gains when students take the actual SAT. The association represents 11,000 college admissions officers, high-school guidance counselors and private advisors.

I remember taking one of these courses prior to taking the ACT and it really seemed to improve my score. The class really taught me how to take a multiple choice test and understand how to give answers that the test makers wanted, rather than what I thought the right answer should be. It went against my intuition, but seemed to work. However, when I took the GRE prior to my PhD, I used a GRE prep book and skipped the class. I think that was a mistake. So, for some people, the classes may really work and for others, not so much.

Anyone else out there take one of these classes or have kids or grand kids who did and find them useful or not?



Blogger Laura(southernxyl) said...

I don't remember my SAT scores, but I do remember my ACT scores.

My little podunk high school didn't offer any prep classes. My mom bought me a couple of workbooks. My daughter's high school, a high-octane magnet school in Memphis, offered a course that went over several Saturday mornings; she participated in one for students who had scored high on the PSAT.

Her ACT score was one point higher than mine.

Either way, you need something, because as you note, Helen, on those multiple choice questions, the "right" answer isn't always intuitively obvious even to the student who knows her stuff.

11:06 AM, May 23, 2009  
Blogger DADvocate said...

I've always felt that if you want to do well on the ACT, SAT or GREs, study and do well in your courses. BUT, some people seem to have better test taking skills or attitudes.

My ACT scores were above average but not great. That pretty much reflects my level of effort in high school. In college I worked harder, did well and my GREs reflected that. I don't get nervous when taking tests however. I figure I either know what I need to know or don't. Getting anxious and tense won't help, so I take the test with a relaxed attitude.

I've never put much faith in the test classes although I have no experience to support my opinion. I just figure you either know it or don't a single little class won't help much except maybe to improve your attitude and approach.

11:48 AM, May 23, 2009  
Blogger Jonathan Lanctot said...

As a Junior in college right now who's taken a GRE prep courses, here's my take:

There's definitely a skill to taking a standardised test, and each one has its own particulars. But, once you have the bubble-filling strategy down, there are diminishing returns beyond that.

Of course I'm generalising for everyone here, but my 2¢: I buy a book for each standardised test I take. (ACT, SAT, and GRE so far.) This is just so I know the ground rules and can run through the test on my own and get a "feel" for what they're looking for. I find prep courses exceedingly boring and excessively expensive; get someone who did well on the test to tutor for a far, far cheeper rate.

Once you have the idea behind the test and a feel for timing and prioritising questions, you'll be fine. Some people have trouble with that; some don't. It's definitely a skill, though.

11:54 AM, May 23, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the prep worked for my son because it helped him to get over a fear of the real thing.

11:59 AM, May 23, 2009  
Blogger Edgehopper said...

I've taught for Princeton Review (no longer do, and I have no particular love for the company), and I think there's a benefit for the aptitude test types (SAT, GRE, LSAT) and not as much for the achievement test types (MCAT, SAT II). Though for my class, there was a benefit for the MCAT test takers because I was usually a better teacher of basic physics than their college physics teachers. But that's not a benefit inherent to the program :)

The SAT prep classes will help a student at the 500-600 level (per test), by giving them techniques that, in the context of the particular test, can make up for a lack of knowledge and intelligence. For example, most algebra problems on the SAT can be done with only simple arithmetic--not as quickly as with algebra, but you get the right answer. Most kids taking the classes don't realize that.

1:18 PM, May 23, 2009  
Blogger Michael E. Lopez said...

Most of these tests measure something that gets developed over years and years of learning. You don't get to be good at the SAT or the GRE from a few weeks' work; you get to be good at them by paying attention and cultivating academic abilities over the course of your education.

No test prep course is going to be able to teach you how to do three place multiplication in your head... that's something that only comes with practice. Nor is a test prep course going to give you the sort of vocabulary that comes from a decade and a half of reading (nor the "reading comprehension skills" that such a long-term engagement with books yields).

What a test prep course *will* do is reduce the "panic factor". If the thought of a three hour exam sends your stomach into barrel rolls, then maybe Kaplan or Princeton Review is for you. But in that case, you're not "gaining" points in the sense of improving your performance potential. What you are doing is removing an obstacle.

To put it as an analogy, you aren't making your car's engine more powerful when you take a prep course; you're fixing the flat tire that's been slowing you down.

1:26 PM, May 23, 2009  
Blogger Joe said...

I've not taken a prep course, but my high school had use take tests similar in style to the SAT. My take is that a basic prep course is useful for understanding how the test is given, how the questions are phrased--to help understand the unknowns.

(At the last minute, I realized I didn't need to take the SAT--I'd been accepted to a university that accepted only the ACT, which I thought a better done test--so I decided to see how fast I could take the SAT without guessing. To the alarm of a gym full of other students, I finished 45 minutes early. Didn't get a bad score either.)

2:44 PM, May 23, 2009  
Blogger TMink said...

I have hears that the best predictor of SAT scores are the amount of time the student read every day. Hour a day readers score significantly higher.


5:25 PM, May 23, 2009  
Blogger TMink said...

I have heard actually. I cannot proofread, but I can hear. At least I have heard that I can hear.


6:29 PM, May 23, 2009  
Blogger robinintn said...

My SAT scores in 1978 were fine.

But my LSAT scores in 1988 were in the bottom 50%. So I got a book. I learned how to answer those questions in the Netflix ads: If Bob is on the train to Paducah, what color are Alice's socks?

Apparently, I had missed pretty much all of that section, because once I understood how to figure out that her socks were purple, I was able to jump into the top 20%.

So, the book worked fine; I probably won't pay for my daughter take the SAT classes.

8:24 PM, May 23, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

I used three different GRE prep-test books and I thought they really helped. My verbal score was in the 95th percentile, analytical writing score was in the 55%ile, and may math score was in the 50%ile. I like studying alone, so the classes probably wouldn't have helped me. However, for those who seem to study better in groups or in classes, it may be beneficial.

12:41 AM, May 24, 2009  
Blogger Misanthrope said...

My public school system offered ACT Prep as an elective for a semester, taught by a math teacher and an English teacher. I found the English part a bit repetitive, but the math part was helpful at the time.

The biggest benefit was that it helped to remove test anxiety by giving me a feel for the test.

By the by, I got a 29 composite with a year of Algebra 1 (22 on the Math section) and decided not to take it again. I had a friend who took it six times and got between a 28 and 31 after AP Calculus. He was trying for the 34 needed (as a man, 32 for a woman but this was a decade ago so it's a little hazy) to get a full ride scholarship to the University of Oklahoma.

3:09 AM, May 24, 2009  
Blogger Cham said...

Not that this has anything to do with the SATs, but I think it is sad that colleges and university have to rely on an impersonal nationwide test to evaluate the eligibility for acceptance of prospective students. I understand the whole comparing apples to apples concept, but test taking skills do not measure leadership, honesty, responsibility and a decent personality. It's too bad the schools can't interview all their applicants.

6:31 AM, May 24, 2009  
Blogger Laura(southernxyl) said...

Cham, they typically rely on a lot of stuff: grades, extra-curricular activities, essays.

The tests are supposed to predict whether a student can do college-level work successfully. For instance, the science portion of the ACT doesn't rely very much the science the student has actually learned, which is a good thing, b/c some high schools have a very sketchy science program and those kids would be SOL. Rather, the student reads a few paragraphs about botany, chemistry, or whatever, and then answers questions about it. This is supposed to be a predictor of whether the student has the reading and reasoning ability to benefit from college-level science classes.

10:40 AM, May 24, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...


We (psychologists and counselors) have tests that measure leadership, honesty, responsibility and a "decent personality." Although, we don't know if they would predict good grades or these traits later in life.

12:22 PM, May 24, 2009  
Blogger Robert said...

The first time I took the ACT I purposely didn't do any extra studying because I wanted to know what my score would be like without it. I got a 29 and decided that was good enough so I didn't take it again. My sister, on the other hand, studied for it and got a 26 or a 27 (she was not happy when she heard my score). Take that extremely small sample size how you will.

I didn't take the SAT; our school didn't offer it. In order to take it, we had to travel an hour over to the next town and get there by 8:00 AM to take the test. Since I'm not exactly a morning person and none of the colleges I was applying for required it, I didn't bother.

3:02 AM, May 25, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Although, we don't know if they would predict good grades or these traits later in life."


... or even 10 minutes from now.

4:11 AM, May 25, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My memory of high school is that the trend was for the girls to get better grades but worse standardized test scores and vice versa for the boys.

Some of the high-grade girls had absolutely abysmal test scores (especially in math).

4:14 AM, May 25, 2009  
Blogger Cham said...


Anyone can choose any answer on a test. I've had to take psychological evaluation tests for jobs, and I was more than willing to give the test the answer I thought it was looking for to get me the job, rather than the truth. If colleges started giving prospects psych tests, the kids would start taking test prep classes for those too. However, myself as well as many others, are a pretty good face to face reader of people.

7:51 AM, May 25, 2009  
Blogger MensaRefugee said...

Just remember - the right answer is ALWAYS politically correct.

8:03 AM, May 25, 2009  
Blogger Cham said...


Not necessarily, if you ever take a psychologcal test to become an executive recruiter (headhunter) you will find that the test is looking for someone who is a bit antisocial, rude, superaggressive and selfish. Politically correct for that industry would be a bad thing.

8:21 AM, May 25, 2009  
Blogger TMink said...

My understanding is that Books-A-Million uses a psych test to screen its employees. The test picks people who are least likely to steal and most likely to trun in an employee who does steal. That would explain the horrid service you get when you go to one of those stores, they select for a trait that has little to nothing to do with their customers.


9:10 AM, May 25, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:35 AM, May 25, 2009  
Blogger Cham said...


That's nice for Book-a-Million. They can rest assured their large selection of out-of-print books that sell for $4.98 is secure.

10:08 AM, May 25, 2009  
Blogger robinintn said...

What's with the Korean or Chinese stuff?

11:09 AM, May 25, 2009  
Blogger MensaRefugee said...

I meant on the SAT. You can cut your reading time in half for select passages because there is only 1 answer that will portray the minorities/women etc in a leadership role.

Quite a little time saver.

7:55 PM, May 25, 2009  
Blogger Cham said...

I thought the SATs had a verbal, analytical and math portion. I haven't looked at a sample test lately but I didn't think there was a way to force the right answer to be "women/minorities as leaders" into any of those 3 categories.

6:22 AM, May 26, 2009  
Blogger RR Ryan said...

I took the SAT and the ACT 30 years ago, but I can't imagine the basic strategy has changed. On the math questions, eliminate the answers that are obviously off by orders of magnitude. On the verbal section, read the answers first and work backward. If you know your stuff, this should work every time. Remember, this is more of a time competition than a knowlege competition.

8:55 PM, May 26, 2009  
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4:28 PM, May 27, 2009  
Blogger Kurt said...

Before I took the PSAT, I enrolled in a SAT prep course. My scores were nothing special. I took the SAT later that year, and scored a little higher than I did on the PSAT. I took it again during my senior year, and my score went up more than 100 points.

Something similar happened when I took the GRE. I took it in October during my senior year of college and got good, but not great scores. I took it again in December (no prep classes, though), and improved dramatically.

So in my case, time helped more than any prep classes. Then again, I think the prep classes they offer now are a little more sophisticated than the one I took for the PSAT about 27 years ago.

12:01 AM, May 29, 2009  

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