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SAT-Prep Programs Seek To Give Disadvantaged Students a Leg Up

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Among the throngs of students across the country who have prepared extensively to take the SAT this coming Saturday are 26 African-American students from inner city Atlanta.

Like many of their fellow test-takers, the students have undergone structured training for the SAT I: Reasoning Test during the past four months.

But unlike a substantial number of other students, who paid as much as $700 for a commercial test-preparation course, the Atlanta students paid only $75 for a 12-week session that offered extra discounts for those who could not afford the entire amount.

Their training was made possible through a SAT study group sponsored by the Atlanta-based Eta Omega chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Fulton County Association of Educators.

The study group, like similar programs around the country sponsored by nonprofit groups and commercial enterprises, is aimed at helping disadvantaged students get a leg up on the test that has long been a rite of passage for students hoping to attend college.

Organizations, businesses, schools, and colleges are providing the study sessions to help narrow a dual gap. Not only do lower-income and minority students tend to lag behind in participation rates and scores on the college-entrance exam. Program organizers are also attempting to bridge the gap between students who can afford pricey study courses to prepare for the test and those who cannot.

Research indicates that students who are familiar with the SAT format, such as those who retake the test, tend to boost their scores. ("Jittery Students Are Put to Test With New S.A.T." March 16, 1994.)

Yet, while test-preparation programs for disadvantaged students are proliferating, some educators stress curricular reform, rather than short-term preparation, as an answer to the score and participation gap.

Of the nearly 1.1 million test-takers from the graduating class of 1996, 69 percent were white, reports the New York City-based College Board, which sponsors the SAT.

But white students made up only an estimated 47 percent of 12th graders during the 1994-95 school year, the latest year for which data were available, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.

In the past 10 years, the board reports, the participation gap between white and minority students has narrowed only slightly.

For the class of 1996, the average scores for all minorities lagged behind those for white students in the verbal section of the sat. White students were bested only by Asian-American students in math.

Minorities, however, have shown some gains: Black students, for instance, have increased their average score by 6 points on verbal and 11 points on mathematics on the 800-point scale for each section--since 1987.

The test-taking patterns of last spring's graduates also reveal an income gap: More students from the higher income brackets took the test and consistently outscored their lower-income classmates.

Money Talks

For students who can afford them, there are plenty of commercial test-preparation study guides and courses that promise higher scores. The New York City-based Princeton Review, for instance, estimates that about 30,000 students a year take its SAT courses, which average around $700 for a 54-hour, six-week program. Kaplan Educational Centers, which is also based in New York, estimates that it serves around the same number of students for its courses at fees ranging from $495 to $695 for a 36-hour course that may run from five to 12 weeks.

Both of those companies also offer tuition assistance and reduced-cost or free programs. Robin Weiner, the director of community outreach for Kaplan, said the company has offered tuition assistance for many years.

Today, Kaplan works with volunteer organizations to train SAT tutors. It also goes into high schools with needy students to offer services for free or at a reduced charge to the youths, Ms. Weiner said. She said that aid for disadvantaged students is also available at the more than 185 Kaplan centers around the country.

Jay Rosner, the director of the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Princeton Review Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Princeton Review, said that his group runs reduced-cost programs in conjunction with local foundations for about 1,500 students nationwide and has distributed books and trained tutors in local groups. "We feel we have an obligation to reach out to the underserved," Mr. Rosner said. "There's certainly a need and a demand out there far beyond what we can fill."

In an attempt to address the demand, other groups have stepped up. The Atlanta group was formed two years ago as an alternative to more-expensive programs. It serves only black students at this point but will not turn anyone down, said Cleo Graves, an Omega Psi Phi member who serves as the chairman of the clinic.

"There are a lot of programs out there that help students with the SAT, but they cost a lot of money," Mr. Graves said. "Even at $75, some families still can't afford this."

Another local partnership created this fall pairs the Prince George's County, Md., schools with Maryland's Bowie State University, both of which have predominantly minority enrollments. The program offers an intensive, 14-week SAT-preparation course for 150 high school students, with the goal of increasing college-entrance rates. The university and private businesses are paying for the program; the school system is picking up the tab for transportation.

Stressing Curriculum

The College Board has traditionally declined to endorse commercial preparation services. It does, however, give all potential test-takers a free test-preparation booklet, and it also offers books and software about the test.

With evidence that its enriched-curriculum pilot program aimed at minority and disadvantaged students has been working, the College Board has put its weight behind that plan as a way to increase college entry for all students. Known as Equity 2000, the program promotes rigorous academic study, such as requisite algebra and geometry courses by grade 10, and professional development for teachers. ("College Board To Expand Equity 2000 Program," Nov. 20, 1996.)

Although the program includes preparation for the SAT, said Don Horrigan, the director of technical services for Equity 2000, the curriculum is what will help students do well on the test. "You can't make up for 10 years of poor content in 10 hours of class," he said.

That view puts Mr. Horrigan and the College Board in agreement with educators who call for a tougher curriculum as a means of improving test scores.

Eugene Williams, the creator of a program designed to increase scores on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test through intensive study, fears that many administrators in schools serving disadvantaged students focus more on test-taking strategies than content. "It just saddens me when I see us working so hard but not working smart, and the smart approach is to make sure they have content," said Mr. Williams, the director of the Fannie Mae Foundation-sponsored Academic Enhancement Program in Washington.

Can Make a Difference

Some educators say that school systems should require that all children take an academic-course sequence, but at the same time ensure that teachers and administrators are aware of the gravity of the standardized tests for admission to college.

"If you haven't taken the proper sequence of courses, you will be at an enormous disadvantage even if you take Princeton Review or Kaplan," said Maxine Bleich, the president of the New York City-based Ventures in Education, a company that helps schools serving disadvantaged students set high academic standards.

Yet in a struggling school system that doesn't have its curriculum up to par, Ms. Bleich said, a preparation course for entrance exams can still make a significant difference.

For disadvantaged students, a few more points on the SAT can mean potential scholarship money, she added.

"If they took the [SAT-preparation] courses, it might make a big difference for them because the schools are not doing anything effective in preparing for the test," Ms. Bleich said.

"And anybody who tells you different is just denying what the competitive part of the community is doing."

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