The Multiple Choices of Prepping for the
By COELI CARR Published:
October 3, 2004
ANN STECKMEYER of Bethesda, Md., remembers vividly
the night last spring when her son, Joe, then a high school
junior, went online to learn his SAT scores. "There was this
blood-curdling scream," she said, that propelled her and her
husband upstairs to see the numbers.
Numbers mean a lot to Ms. Steckmeyer, an accountant and
partner at Kaiser, Scherer & Schlegel in McLean, Va. And
her son's increase in score - from the equivalent of a 1,080
on his first PSAT, to a 1,300 on his second one, to that
scream-eliciting 1,410 on his initial SAT - gave him an
excellent shot, she said, at some of the top colleges to which
he had applied. (The highest possible score is 1,600.)
"Ned said Joe was going to get 1,400," Ms. Steckmeyer said,
referring to Ned Johnson, her son's tutor and the founder and
owner of PrepMatters, a company in Bethesda that offers
one-on-one help in test preparation. "The key, absolutely, was
Ned taking a true interest, believing there was potential and
figuring out what happened to Joe when he took a test."
Many parents are finding their children's entry into the
junior year to be an increasingly nerve-racking rite of
passage. That is when parents are confronted with the cold
reality of the SAT reasoning test and its power over their
Much of this apprehension is well founded. More students
are applying to colleges, and these applicants - better
prepared for the SAT than those in the past - are achieving
higher scores. In the last decade, the number of students
taking the SAT has increased 35 percent, said Brian O'Reilly,
executive director of information services for the College
Board, the owner of the SAT.
Not surprisingly, plenty of people are in the business of
helping students achieve higher scores, from tutors to
companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review, which are best
known for classroom test-prep courses but have had significant
revenue growth from their one-on-one tutoring packages over
the past year. Evaluating the scope and potential
effectiveness of these offerings, however, is daunting.
"I think it's very easy for a parent to misunderstand or
misdiagnose why their kid is not testing well," said Mr.
Johnson, 34, whose personal hourly rate is now $250 and whose
services are booked through 2006. (His company employs four
full-time and 16 part-time tutors, at $150 an hour.) "The key
is to figure out how or why that student is underperforming."
Mr. Johnson says that the SAT has consistent patterns and
that "the people who make up these tests take core information
and try to construct questions that play games with that."
The test-taker, as well, has ingrained habits when
answering questions, he said, and "until students are aware of
the patterns of the test and the patterns of themselves,
they're not going to perform their best."
If parents want test-preparation help for their children,
should they go the one-on-one route or opt for group classes?
Often, parents start shopping so late that the only
possibility is to have their child spend a few hours with a
Kelly Tanabe, who, with her husband, Gen, runs
SuperCollege, a tutoring business in Los Altos, Calif., says
the worst mistake parents make is to view tutoring as merely a
brush-up - and to underestimate the time it takes to prepare
for a test.
"It's my responsibility to set realistic expectations,"
said Ms. Tanabe, "I tell parents: 'We can prepare for a test,
but two months is not enough time. We can make some
improvement, but you can't expect a miracle to come out of
Lisa Jacobson, chief executive of Inspirica, a 150-tutor
company in New York that specializes in one-on-one test
preparation and tutoring, says she has also had to deal with
misconceptions about SAT preparation - like the idea that all
students will be able to meet the standards of the school of
their dreams. "Parents open a college guide, see the median
SAT score is 1,350 and say, 'My kid's got to get a 1,300,' "
said Ms. Jacobson, whose company's hourly rates run from $200
to $400. "And we say, 'Where's your child starting?' It
totally matters. If he's starting at 1,000, he's not going to
get there. Parents often think once they hire the company,
Ms. Jacobson said parents with high expectations often did
not realize the complexity of the process. "We're the first
reality check," she said.
And parents should not shop for a tutor based solely on the
number of hours in a one-on-one package. "It's really about
how the teacher is able to convey the material," said Robert
Shaw, a partner in IvySuccess, an individual tutoring and
admissions strategy company in Garden City, N.Y. Mr. Shaw's
company requires instructors to be Ivy League graduates with
SAT scores of 1,500 or higher and at least three years of
Students feel the pressure, too, whether or not they are
receiving help with test preparation. "Once they see their
peers either getting tutoring or raising their scores as a
result of tutoring, they're like, 'These are the guys I'm
competing against,' ".
Some schools are trying to level the playing field by
offering tutoring to all students. Little Red School House and
Elizabeth Irwin High School, a private school in Manhattan,
runs a six-week, 12-session SAT-prep course, through Kaplan,
for its juniors. "We don't teach to the various tests, but, as
we saw more people doing this, we said, 'This is not right for
some kids to get this and other kids not to,' " said Tony
Fisher, the principal of the high school. "We did this less
for curricular reasons and much more for philosophical equity
Despite a climate that pressures parents to seek test
preparation services, there are still plenty of opportunities
for those who want to prepare for the SAT on their own or
cannot afford private or even classroom coaching.
Based on his research with students in 2003, Edward B.
Fiske, co-author of "The Fiske New SAT Insiders Guide"
(Sourcebooks), says the most useful way to prepare for the SAT
is to take previously administered tests for practice. "Do it
under timed conditions, simulate the real testing conditions,
analyze what you do wrong and then work on that," he advised.
"You're going to learn your test-taking style."
Old tests can be found in "10 Real SAT's," published by the
College Board. (The Educational Testing Service writes the
test.) In anticipation of a new SAT with an essay portion that
will be given for the first time in March, the College Board
is selling "The Official SAT Study Guide: For the New SAT"; it
costs $19.95 and includes tests modeled on the new format.
This month, the organization will offer "The Official SAT
Online Course" for $69.95. But not all parents can manage to
find a stopwatch and a few hours in which to proctor their
test-practicing children, which is why the idea of giving the
task to professionals is so appealing.
"The climate of fear that has created so many anxious
parents and students is very, very good for the test prep
business and, I'm assuming now, the one-on-one tutoring
business," said Joshua Aronson, associate professor of applied
psychology at New York University. Mr. Aronson advises parents
to get a handle on whether their child is smart but doesn't
test well, or is academically weak to the extent that no
amount of instruction will help secure a place at Harvard.
"It's awfully important to know the category before you lay
your money down," he said. Discovering a child's real talents
would be even better, he added. "Your mission as a parent is
to say not 'How smart is my kid?' but 'How is my kid smart?' "
he said. "You focus in on that and then, wherever the kid goes
to college, he'll know, 'This is what I'm good at.' "