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Prepping for the test

Kids spend long hours and big money to get ready for the SAT - and it's changing the shape of high school life

Irina Shinchuk spends an average of 12 hours a week preparing for the SAT. A junior at Brookline (Mass.) High School, she's a strong student who takes all honors courses. But she's still worried about the vocabulary section of the key college entrance exam. And so three nights each week this fall, she has gone to a professional SAT prep course, where she joined nine others in reviewing vocab, practicing math, and getting some high-energy counseling on traps to watch out for when she takes the real test on Nov. 6.

But she's not stopping there. Irina also spent "basically the whole summer" studying for the SAT. And now that school has started, she admits, "I try to spend as much time as possible - I don't do a lot on weekends. I want to do well."

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SAT prep - which runs the gamut from commercial courses and private tutoring to books, videos, and online programs - has exploded in the late 1990s.

Just a decade or so ago, most students were told to get a good night's sleep before the three-hour test and gently reassured that there was little they could do to prepare for what was, after all, an aptitude exam. Some more-ambitious - and wealthy - students may have sought tutoring, but most settled for spending a few hours with off-the-shelf books of sample questions.

Today, such a practice seems almost quaint. With the competition to get into good colleges increasing on a yearly basis, vast numbers of students now devote months to getting ready for the SAT and spend anywhere from $700 to $5,000 for coaching services, in the hope of better test scores.

The Princeton Review, one of the major test-preparation firms, estimates that its enrollment has more than doubled from 15,000 students in the late 1980s to 35,000 today, with an additional 5,000 being tutored privately. And it's just one of many test-prep options.

In some circles, test prep has become so ubiquitous that "it's no longer a matter of if you're prepping, but whom you're prepping with," says Keri Hoyt of The Princeton Review.

Students who haven't yet joined the bandwagon are feeling increasing uncertainty about that choice. "I'm not taking [a test-prep course]," says Sylvia Houghteling, another junior at Brookline High, "but I feel like I'm at a real disadvantage because everyone else is."

To some observers, this rush to prep is a logical outcome, given the test's importance and the fact that it is increasingly accepted as something students can prepare for. But to critics, the frenzy has created the academic equivalent of an arms race. And, they charge, the increasing amount of time and energy - not to mention money - devoted to this one test is distorting the educational landscape, favoring wealthy students and diverting kids from everything from participation in sports to more-meaningful academic pursuits.

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"There's great sadness, in my mind, attached to this phenomenon," says Elenor Reid, college counselor at The Brearley School, a private K-12 school in Manhattan, "because I think of all the other things kids could be doing to broaden their horizons."

Originally: a no-study test

Ironically, the SAT was originally designed as a test that couldn't be studied for - thereby giving intelligent students from poorer schools the chance to compete with those from more privileged backgrounds. "The original purpose of the test was that you weren't supposed to prepare for it and that it measured some quality that was just sitting there in your mind - what ETS likes to call 'developed ability,'" says Nicholas Lemann, author of a new book, "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

But now, he continues, "the test-prep folks have created a blur around the test, about whether it's an honest broker or neutral yardstick as far as measuring the academic ability of kids." There's an increasing perception that, with the right kind of instruction, the test can be "gamed." And so kids are prepping - in droves.

Interestingly, despite many parents' willingness to sign their kids up, there's still no clear evidence that SAT prep actually works. The College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the test, produced a study last year that indicated that most students who took prep courses experienced only modest gains: an average of 12 points on the verbal section and 26 on math. Critics of the study point out that it relied on kids to be honest about the kind of coaching they'd had, something many might not choose to disclose.

On the other hand, "the test-prep folk haven't done a study that would pass scientific muster," says Mr. Lemann. All they have on their side is "anecdotal evidence."

Yet such lore has been strong enough to launch what by some estimates is now a half-billion-dollar industry.

Test prep vs. free time

Indeed, doing well on the SAT has become many students' No. 1 goal. "So many kids are taking SAT prep classes," says Sylvia, "and they all go home and do their homework for these classes, and they don't do their homework for school."

For others, test prep has begun to replace extracurricular activities. Jamie Redmond, a senior at Mount Saint Joseph Academy, in Brighton, Mass., has to leave soccer practice early to go to her evening prep classes. Occasionally she even has to miss a game - but, she insists, "It's totally worth it. I was not at all happy with my SAT scores."

Still, she admits, without test prep, "I would have ... extra time to study and my stress level would probably go down."

Much of students' stress comes from a perception that colleges are relying on SATs more than ever to judge candidates. Test-prep companies, not surprisingly, encourage this belief. One of the latest ads for New York-based Kaplan, a major coaching company, reads: "Kaplan gets you in. Period."

A direct correlation between SAT scores and admission is something most colleges vehemently deny. Yet a former senior admissions officer at both Harvard and Stanford Universities admits that there's some truth to it. One reason, he explains, is grade inflation. "Transcripts are becoming more and more indistinguishable," he says. "Some high schools now have 30 or 40 valedictorians. The one measure [of comparison] that's remained consistent is the SAT."

Many critics contend, however, that this intense focus on the SAT is sending kids the wrong message about education. Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard and author of this fall's "Intelligence Reframed" (Basic Books), argues that the "direct message is that it is important to be able to move rapidly from one kind of question to another, and that knowing how to get efficiently to 'the right answer' is what college and education are about."

Even worse, he adds, is the "implicit message ... that those with resources to buy additional training have a great advantage in this kind of sweepstakes."

Leveling the playing field

Recently, in an apparent effort to combat the growing belief that expensive coaching has given wealthy students an unfair advantage on the SAT, the College Board announced its plan to launch a for-profit Web site,, to make test prep more widely available. But the move has generated widespread controversy. Critics call it a conflict of interest, asking how the makers of the test can offer hints on taking it without compromising their integrity. Andy Lutz, vice president for high school programs at The Princeton Review, points out that it directly contradicts the board's previous stand that coaching doesn't work.

Of even greater concern to some observers is the effect that the College Board's seeming endorsement of test prep will have on schools. SAT prep has already begun appearing in many schools as a required course for juniors and seniors.

And last year, California allocated $10 million for SAT coaching aimed at schools in low-income communities. The Princeton Review estimates that it now has more than 400 contracts with schools to offer prep courses, up from 15 last year.

To Bob Schaeffer, director of public education at FairTest, a testing watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass., the time and money spent making SAT coaching available to low-income students would be far better spent on other areas of public education.

"It's such a tragic diversion of resources," he says. "We're using this as a Band-Aid on an entire system that is bleeding."

Most students see the prep courses offered by schools as less than helpful, anyway. "You just sit there and take tests," says Jamie of the required SAT prep classes at her school. The additional hours she's spent with The Princeton Review have convinced her that school courses don't work. "They don't have a clue," she scoffs. "They don't teach you any tricks."

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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