Assessment Opinion

Standardized-Test Prep Isn’t the Big, Bad Wolf

By Travis Coleman — August 02, 2016 4 min read
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When the College Board announced it would debut a new version of the SAT this year, it also announced a partnership with Khan Academy to provide free online access to official SAT practice material. This signaled a big step toward leveling the playing field in standardized-test preparation, but it also highlighted some common misconceptions about the value and purpose of the test-prep industry.

Soon after the announcement, Sal Khan, the CEO of Khan Academy, offered some critical words about other test-prep programs, implying that they offered only “tips and tricks,” as opposed to the “real learning” enshrined in Khan Academy’s new approach.

This misleading representation of the test-prep industry undermines efforts to encourage students to learn the skills necessary to succeed on standardized tests.


As a former SAT tutor and current LSAT curriculum manager, my views are painted by my own experiences teaching these exams. That said, I agree with many criticisms of standardized testing’s interference with classroom learning, and the overemphasis we place on test scores in general. What I don’t agree with is that standardized tests are inherently flawed, and that preparing for them is counterproductive.

In fact, it’s dangerous to view the test-prep industry as ineffective and an obstacle to learning. First, such a view misrepresents the role that traditional test prep plays in preparing for a standardized test. Second, it places too much pressure on organizations like Khan Academy and the College Board to solve all the problems that our vast systems of public and private education cannot.

Most Americans go to school for about 12 years before taking their first big standardized admissions test, the SAT or the ACT. They have that much time to learn basic math, reading, and writing. Compare that to the one to three months that most people spend studying for the exams themselves, and one fact becomes clear: the goals of test prep must be different from the goals of school.

There are real problems in the world of standardized testing, but the simple existence of test-prep programs teaching students pragmatic skills is not one of them."

The goals of good standardized-test prep are to help test-takers analyze their performance, target weaknesses that can realistically be addressed in the time available, and play to their strengths on test day. That usually does involve teaching math, grammar, or critical-reading skills—I’ve spent plenty of time teaching students about sentence structure or transitional language or fractions and percentages. But it also involves teaching people how to prioritize based on an awareness of their own abilities.

Many successful people are successful not because they are good at everything, but because they understand and exploit their own strengths, and rely on other people to support them in areas of weakness. A strong test-prep program helps test-takers recognize what they know and what they don’t.

To vilify the type of test prep that teaches time management and prioritization rather than “real learning” is to replace a manageable task with a nearly insurmountable one. Addressing the underlying fundamentals rather than working on test strategy takes an enormous amount of time. Students struggle to master these topics in the classroom over many years, much less on their own at home, after a long day of school and an afternoon of homework, part-time jobs, or extracurriculars.

The SAT and the ACT are admissions tests, designed to measure readiness for college. They are not tools designed primarily to provide guidance to students on how to improve, or to tell schools where they are succeeding or failing. They are not tools designed primarily to assess our education system as a whole or to assess the overall intelligence of a human being. They may have been repurposed to fill those roles, but they do so inconsistently and unfairly.

If you’re going to take issue with something in the standardized-testing world, do so with purpose. If you believe that statewide standardized testing to assess the efficacy of the school system is counterproductive, then contact your local school board. If you believe that admissions tests have too much influence in admissions decisions, then stop reading U.S. News & World Report’s higher education rankings. If you think admissions tests are unfair to minority students and those from lower socioeconomic classes, then fight to protect policies like affirmative action.

And if you believe that admissions-test prep gives an unfair advantage to those who can afford it, then support the many organizations out there offering test prep for free or at a very low cost.

There are real problems in the world of standardized testing, but the simple existence of test-prep programs teaching students pragmatic skills is not one of them. Instead, test prep is an alternative source of education for students who seek it out, offering them lessons that aren’t often taught in school, but which they may come to value much more than any of the formulas and parts of speech they will promptly forget after taking the test.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 03, 2016 edition of Education Week as Standardized Test Isn’t the Big, Bad Wolf


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