College & Workforce Readiness

College Board Reports Score Gains From Free SAT Practice

By Catherine Gewertz — May 08, 2017 5 min read
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The College Board released new data Monday showing that students who used its free online practice course through Khan Academy for as little as six to eight hours gained 90 points on average between their PSAT and SAT scores.

Students who used the College Board’s “Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy” for 20 to 22 hours averaged improvements of 115 points over their PSAT scores, company officials said. That’s nearly double the 60-point average gain of students who didn’t use the free test preparation.

The new data come from a College Board analysis of the redesigned 1600-point SAT, which made its debut in March of 2016. The assessment company studied test administrations over the next year, and examined the impact of Khan Academy practice on 250,000 students’ scores.

The correlation of higher scores with more use of the practice system led the College Board to praise it as an important opportunity for students who can’t afford the high pricetags of many test-prep courses.

“Practice is an equal opportunity employer, and it’s free,” College Board President David Coleman said in a conference call with reporters. He said students who use it aren’t learning quick test-prep strategies, but mastering the academic skills and knowledge that matter—an echo of the guiding idea behind the redesign of the SAT.

Salman Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy, told reporters that he and his team worried initially that a free service might be stigmatized as being of little value. But the system is being used by students of all family-income backgrounds, races, and ethnicities, he told reporters.

Officials of the two organizations did not produce breakdowns of the PSAT-to-SAT score gains by racial, ethnic, gender or income subgroups, saying only that the gains held constant across all groups.

Effects of Other Test-Prep?

They acknowledged that they didn’t know which of the students using Khan might also be using outside test-prep companies, so they couldn’t rule out that such practice might be responsible for a slice of the gains. But Khan said he believes the gains show “an independent association” with Khan practice because they held steady across all socioeconomic groups.

Khan Academy and the College Board announced their partnership in March 2014 and the new online practice system made its debut in June 2015. The site offers questions from past SAT exams, video tutorials, practice tests, and other supports for students preparing to take the SAT. Students can use the resources without linking their College Board accounts to the Khan Academy. But those who do link the two can get customized support based on their PSAT and previous SAT scores.

Coleman acknowledged that for students who used the practice tests, some small part of the score gain could derive from familiarity with the test. “But score gains of this sort—115 or 200 points—are way beyond test familiarity,” he added.

College Board officials said that more than 3.7 million students have used the Khan Academy practice since it became available. Forty percent of students who’ve taken the new SAT have used the test preparation system. Nearly 3 in 10 students using the system did so during the school day, suggesting, the College Board said, that they’re working with “a caring adult” such as a teacher or counselor.

SAT Practice as a Selling Point?

A teacher and several students joined the call to share their experiences using Khan. Their stories supported the College’s Board’s desire to have the system seen as a valuable instructional tool, not just a road to higher SAT scores. The College Board has been in a heated market-share battle with ACT Inc., and pushing hard to win more state- and district-level contracts.

Betsy Leis, a language-arts teacher at Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, Fla., said her district undertook a major campaign to involve students in Khan Academy practice. All students in grades 9-12 practice at least 30 minutes daily in their language-arts classes, she said. All students have linked their College Board accounts to Khan Academy, so that “when they practice it’s authentic, to improve in the areas they need most help with,” she said. As they practice, classroom teachers are there to help and answer questions, Leis said.

D’Andre Weaver, a senior and a football player at Oak Ridge High, said he worked Khan Academy practice into his daily routine, using it on his cellphone on the bus to a game, or on the notebook computer issued by his school. His SAT score came in 260 points above his PSAT score, and he also improved his SAT score 100 points when he took the college-entrance exam again.

James S. Murphy, the director of national outreach for Princeton Review, welcomed the College Board data as good news for students who have worked hard and boosted their scores.

To Murphy’s ears, the news amounts to “an announcement that the debate about test prep is done, and we won. This is a validation of what Princeton Review has been doing for 35 years: focused intense preparation, using good techniques, will get you a higher score.”

Coleman’s distinction between preparation that focuses on “tricks” and practice that focuses on valuable academic skills is a false one, Murphy said. “Everything I’ve ever taught as a tutor has been based on understanding the content on the exam, and then teaching students to understand the best way to answer the questions. It might look like a trick because it doesn’t look like what your high school teacher does. But one person’s trick is another person’s smart technique.”

Lee Weiss, the vice president of college admissions and K-12 programs, Kaplan Test Prep, said he is concerned that making claims to students about the score-boosting power of Khan Academy could be “misleading.” He also said that the company knows that “a strong percentage” of its students were also using Khan, so it’s “unclear” how much of the gain can be attributed to Khan.

For more stories about the new SAT, see:

SAT Results 2016: It’s Complicated

Some Early Reactions to Just-Released Scores From the New SAT

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.