A recent article in the USA today sheds some more light on score increase claims made by many test prep companies. We previously brought this issue to light in our blog post on this specific topic. The Princeton Review has since “agreed to stop using claims about average score gains in its marketing materials.” Of course, because the College Board does not allow companies to use prior SAT problems, prep companies generate their content internally. Some companies may then intentionally (or unintentionally) load diagnostic tests with more difficult questions, leading to lower student scores on initial tests. While coaching and commercial forms of test prep have proven to increase SAT scores, and are highly recommended, just another reason to be careful about reading too much into marketing slogans oriented around score gains (especially when many of these companies charge over $1000 for some of their offerings).
Yes, taking a practice test from any test facility other than College Board can lead to incorrect score assumptions. Many prep sites actually design their questions to be especially difficult in order to show more dramatic score increases. In fact, the College Board has designed the SAT with an experimental section to normalize future tests. Research completed by the College Board states that “high gains are computed using flawed research methods, and the ‘guarantees’ may simply permit students to continue participating in coaching programs at no additional charge after initially paying a large fee.” Additionally here are some reasons for why score increases can be inflated:
- An assumption by test prep companies that their prep course is the only reason for score increases, even when the course may have been taken more than a year prior or when additional methods of study were used.
- Most test prep companies use an initial diagnostic test to determine starting score. However, many students are likely to be much less motivated to perform on a diagnostic and have done zero preparation at all.
- Students who enroll in expensive test prep courses may perform at higher levels because of subjective reasons, such as coming from families with more formal education, or having higher education aspirations or are simply more motivated.
- Large test prep companies have huge overhead costs that need to be paid by exorbitant class fees to run their business. There are executives with huge salaries and bonuses, venues for the classes that need to be rented, quality assurance and logistical people to answer phone calls and handle day to day issues, not to mention all of the other expenses incurred to keep a business in operation. When you purchase a $500-$1,000 course, most of your money is going to help cover this overhead, and very little is being used to directly improve your son or daughter’s SAT score.
That being said, students enrolling in some sort of formal test prep will on average have higher test scores than if they did no preparation. Just be wary when a test prep company claims to guarantee the biggest score increase.
To prepare for the SAT Reasoning Test, you will need to study these three areas:
- Overall familiarity with the test. You’ll want to know the instructions, format, time, etc. before walking into your first SAT.
- An understanding of the content relevant to the math, verbal and writing sections. Knowing the type of questions you’ll be seeing will allow for more refined and focused studying.
- Learning the tricks College Board utilizes to throw you off your game. Knowing these tricks and reviewing broad strategies for guessing, answer elimination, time management, in addition to specific tricks within questions will lead to much improved scores.
We recommend a Learn by Doing approach that covers all three focus areas in a simple and straightforward way, without the need to choose between short-term or long-term programs. Where short-term prep courses generally focus on test taking strategies, and long-term prep courses can be more associated with supplementary education. We’ve found the long-term commercial style test prep is too focused on manipulated score increases and high costs, while short-term programs focus mostly on familiarity with the test and lack the quality to delve into specific question tricks or needed content coverage.