College & Workforce Readiness

Test-Taking Strategy Yields Major Gains

By Julie Blair — February 23, 2000 7 min read

Students at a high school in rural North Carolina who once would not have considered college are posting strong SAT scores and getting financial-aid offers from competitive schools, thanks to free and abundant help provided by their school district in preparing for the exam.

Two years ago, many high school seniors in Kings Mountain, N.C., would have given as much thought to decoding the secrets of the SAT as they would have to becoming the next Indiana Jones. For students without the academic and financial tools to crack the college- admissions test, success on the exam seemed about as likely as navigating a stream stocked with hungry alligators.

So in 1998, the Kings Mountain school district moved to level the playing field for poor and well-to-do students. Administrators spent $7,000 on an intensive, computer-based SAT-preparation program that provided remedial help and test-taking strategies to all 10th, 11th, and 12th graders at the 1,150-student Kings Mountain High School—and at no cost to the students.

Providing that kind of help is an increasingly popular remedy among policymakers from the local to the federal level who are worried about unequal access to college—and it’s an approach that Kings Mountain officials say has paid off.

“This wasn’t the kind of place where many students even considered higher education,” said Jane King, the district’s administrator of curriculum and instruction. Now the testing pool “is definitely more diverse.”

About 22 percent of students in the district are African-American, Ms. King said. About 37 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The district has seen “phenomenal gains” in its students’ entrance-exam scores, Ms. King added. Some are boosting their scores by 100, 200, even 300 points, she said.

That means Kings Mountain students are suddenly eligible to attend colleges once seen as a stretch. They are also garnering better financial-aid packages—a ticket to higher education for students from underrepresented groups.

Other districts, states, and the federal government are zeroing in on free test-preparation as the path to higher entrance-exam scores and rates of college enrollment for minority and low-income students.

Policies for subsidizing test preparation have popped up in districts from Maryland to Texas, and a program is being tried statewide in California. Lawmakers in Colorado, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Washington state recently proposed such programs. President Clinton took up the cause in his State of the Union speech last month, asking Congress to allocate $10 million in competitive grants in fiscal 2001 to pay for test preparation.

“Unless you’re going to have a well-organized, long-term preparation program in high school, you don’t see the results,” said Stephen M. Preston, the director of research and evaluation for the Georgia Department of Education, which allotted state funding for such programs in 1998 and 1999.

Critics argue that such measures are a superficial fix. Most high schools, they contend, would be better off improving their curricula so that students are better-prepared for college work and admissions tests.

“Addressing [participation and scores] though last-minute test-preparation programs strikes me as treating the symptom rather than the cause,” said Thomas Mortenson, the publisher of the newsletter Postsecondary Education Opportunity and a policy analyst for the Center for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, a Washington-based independent research group.

Each year, some 3.7 million students take the SAT or the ACT, the two standardized college-entrance exams used nationwide, and each year African-American and Hispanic students score lower—much lower—than their white counterparts. Testing companies report that the gap has persisted for more than 20 years.There is no comparable data available for previous years at either testing company.

Many experts who support funding for test preparation point to students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and to the poor quality of their K-12 schooling to explain the gap. They say that many minority and low- income students don’t have the money to take the exam-preparation courses that are taught by private companies.

‘An Equity Issue’

Those who support test-preparation funding also say poor and minority students are more likely than whites and middle- and upper-income students to live in districts of lesser quality that fail to teach the challenging material covered on the college- entrance tests.

“It is obvious that the SAT is an important and critical component of academic success,” said Bill Lawrence, the secondary director for the northeast area for the suburban Baltimore County, Md., school district, which recently began underwriting intensive test-preparation programs in all of its 24 high schools.

“This is an equity issue,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that students had equal information.”

As President Clinton fashions the details of his test-preparation proposal, one White House aide says he is looking west to California as a model.

In 1998, policymakers in that state passed a law detailing the College Preparation Partnership Program. The initiative authorized $10 million annually until 2005 for competitive grants to schools to pay for 20 hours of SAT and ACT preparation and test-taking in poor communities, said Ron Fox, the manager of the intersegmental- relations office at the California Department of Education.

Local districts must come up with the money to finance one-third of the cost of such programs. Schools are given the choice of training staff members to run the programs or contracting with companies that provide the services.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the initiative is yielding bigger and more diverse pools of test-takers in the state and raising scores as well.

“We are seeing low-income and minority students who understand they need to take an SAT to be eligible for admission to a four-year college, whereas before, I don’t know if that information would have gotten to them as effectively,” said Jay Rosner, the executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation in San Francisco. The foundation is the nonprofit arm of the New York City-based Princeton Review, the company that is overseeing test preparation for more than 10,000 high school students under the 1998 California law.

“Average improvement is between 80 and 100 points” out of 1600 points on the exam, Mr. Rosner said, for students in California who have completed the program, compared with their previous scores.

The Princeton Review, which has been in the business of test preparation for 19 years, has tailor-made courses for California that take into account the special needs of low- performing students, he added. Two-hour sessions are held both before and after school and focus on test-taking strategies as well as teaching skills.

“We’ve added more instructional materials for the easy and medium [test] problems because those are the questions that they have to get correct to improve their scores,” Mr. Rosner said. The Princeton Review is paid $300 per student, he said, with similar commercial courses ranging from $250 to $450 per student.

Scholastic Testing Systems, the test-preparation company based in Alexandria, Va., that helped raise scores in North Carolina’s Kings Mountain district, spends 80 percent of students’ time on remedial work, said William J. Zuberduhler, the company’s chief executive officer. Computer-based software presents students with a detailed analysis of the 58 skills tested on SAT exams, he said, then ranks each individual’s weaknesses.

Misplaced Spending?

But such efforts are valuable only because of fundamental flaws in the K-12 system, some education experts argue. Instead of hiring companies to provide remedial help for students about to take college-entrance exams, they say, schools should be strengthening the curriculum for all students.

“If I were in charge, I’d be investing the dollars not in preparation for a test, but in efforts to make sure low-income kids got a strong grounding in English and mathematics, the two things the tests examine,” said Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington- based organization that promotes higher academic achievement for poor and minority students.

Guidance counselors are so overburdened they don’t have time to help individual students prepare for the exams, said Kris Zavoli, the director of admissions and guidance services for the College Board’s Western regional office in San Jose, Calif.

“We say there are no secrets for taking the SAT,” said Wayne Camara, the executive director of research and development for the New York City-based College Board, which sponsors the exam. “But just as you wouldn’t want to take a driver’s test cold, you don’t want to go cold into the SAT.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2000 edition of Education Week as Test-Taking Strategy Yields Major Gains

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