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Preparing for SAT Saturday. Prep courses provide review - but mostly peace of mind

THE teen-agers packed into the library of the Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Center in Newton, Mass., last month had at least two things in common - a supply of trusty No. 2 pencils and plans for the morning of Nov. 7. Like close to half a million high school juniors and seniors all over the country, these youngsters will take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) tomorrow morning, a test required for admission into most United States colleges.

Unlike many students taking the SAT, those gathered in Newton have parents willing to pay the Kaplan Center $450 to prepare their children for the onslaught of multiple-choice questions that make up the test.

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The SATs have spawned a $50 million-plus business - application fees, prep courses, study books, and computer software - according to Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing Inc. (FairTest).

``The test is eminently coachable,'' says Mr. Schaeffer. ``If you can afford it [coaching], you should take it.'' He notes that the Federal Trade Commission has verified that preparatory courses for the SAT can improve a student's scores to some degree.

Students who use the Kaplan Educational Center usually score in the 400-to-500 range on the SAT when they start the course. On average, Kaplan students increase 162 points after completing the center's 11 lessons and taking advantage of options like the cassette library and practice tests, says Nancy Kaplan, program director of the center.

``Parents call me up and tell me that their child has been doing wonderfully in high school, and they want to know how he got a 300 on his SAT,'' Ms. Kaplan says.

Both the College Board, sponsor of the SAT, and Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organization that makes up and administers the SAT, have denied for years that preparatory courses and aids can make significant differences in a student's scores.

ETS, however, put out a software package this fall for SAT review. The $195 package includes step-by-step introductions, practice exercises, and mini tests for each type of question. The nine discs are available for the Apple II personal computer, and by January the package will be available for the IBM PC and IBM compatibles. (For more information, contact Joy Reynolds, 9-E Educational Testing Service, Princeton, NJ 08541; (609) 734-1720.)

Carlos Jaramillo, a career counselor at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Va., says the value of preparatory courses is that they make students ``test wise.'' Robinson offers a class every Wednesday evening for six weeks that teaches students how to take the test. ``They learn where to spend their time [during the test] and not to waste time,'' according to Mr. Jaramillo.

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John Fremer, senior development leader at ETS, thinks school programs can do a good job of preparing students to take the SAT. Making up questions for the verbal section of the test was Mr. Fremer's job for part of the 20 years he has worked at ETS. He doesn't think the relatively few hours spent on verbal skills in prep courses will make a difference to the typical child who has been developing vocabulary and reading comprehension for 12 years. But Fremer thinks brushing up on math formulas and concepts is a good idea, especially if a student hasn't taken the math for a year or so. He says that those most likely to benefit from review are students who have the background and just need to be brought up to speed.

The Princeton Review preparatory course teaches its students to estimate math questions, rather than work them through. Students learn the standard setup of the SAT (the questions missed by the majority of the test-takers are always at the end) and how to use that knowledge to their advantage.

``It's the easy questions that have the easy answers,'' says Adam Landis, director of the Boston office of the Princeton Review. ``So if you're at question No. 25, and you get an easy answer, you've got to think, `Wait a minute. If only 10 percent of the country gets this question right, can this answer be this easy?'''

Several schools have decided not to require SAT scores on applications. At Middlebury College in Vermont, for example, a student's school record is considered first when applications are being weeded out, according to Fred Neuberger, dean of admissions. Starting in the fall of 1988, SAT scores will be one of three tests prospective students can include on their applications.

By allowing applicants to submit scores for either the American College Test or the Achievement Tests, Middlebury is trying to allow students to ``guide their own destiny,'' according to Mr. Neuberger. ``I think all of us have been somewhat offended by the so-called SAT prep courses. They're just another advantage to those who are already advantaged,'' he says.

``To compound the racial, cultural, and sexual bias that have been proven to exist in the SAT with the ability to significantly increase your score by coaching can put a black female high school junior in double or even triple jeopardy,'' says Schaeffer of FairTest. ``She's a minority, a woman, and can't afford coaching.''

Sometimes the money spent on preparing for the SAT buys more peace of mind than actual knowledge for students, because they know what they will be facing when they sit down to take the test. As Robinson Secondary School's Jaramillo puts it, ``If the student is going in with the idea that they're going to do better on the test, then they will.''