Prep companies - We can help with new SATs, ACTs

Monday, July 19, 2004

NEWTON, Mass. -- Sporting a shirt embroidered with the Princeton Review logo, David Ragsdale darts around his small classroom, handing back practice essays for the new SAT and offering each student a bullet-point comment.

"You want to be careful about using things that are a little controversial," Ragsdale tells one boy. "You never know what kind of personal issues that will bring up in your reader."

Be more original, he tells a girl across the room. Another student gets credit for his arguments on the Treaty of Versailles, but is urged to work on smoother transitions -- make it easy for the reader, Ragsdale says.

The SAT is changing next year, most notably by adding a written essay, and the nearly as-popular ACT will include an optional essay.

But while the changes are designed to make the tests less "coachable" starting in spring 2005, test prep companies insist the opposite is true and that the tips and methods they've been teaching for years are even more useful now.

Plenty of parents are betting they're right, ignoring criticism that test prep companies simply prey on college admissions fears and shelling out $1,000 or more for courses this summer to prepare their rising high school juniors. Kaplan, Princeton Review's main rival, is running radio ads in the New York City area and reports record enrollment growth this summer.

"The way that they're grading writing and the way they test grammar are very formulaic," said Andy Lutz, program director at Princeton Review, which claims success boosting scores on the SAT II writing exam -- a test not so different from next year's essay. "We're not going to review the entire English language in a class, but we can review those parts that are tested on the SAT."

Such comments are distressing to anti-testing advocates, some of whom agree -- regretfully -- that the new test is indeed more coachable, disadvantaging students who can't afford a prep class.

The test-prep companies "are rubbing their hands in glee" said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the group FairTest, because "the increasing anxiety of students [is] increasing their profits." He complains that the new essay section rewards students for a good first draft, but bears little relevance to the kind of thoroughly researched and revised writing they'll do in college.

Besides the essay, the new SAT is making other changes to emphasize grammar over vocabulary and advanced math over quantitative comparisons. The 25-minute essay will have comparatively little effect on students' scores; the expanded grammar section will count twice as much. Kaplan and Princeton Review plan to spend, essentially, just one session on essays in their summer and fall prep courses.

"The biggest fear is the essay, but when we look at their practice tests, we see they're struggling the most with the grammar section," said John Zeitlin, general manager of SAT and ACT programs at Kaplan.

Each of the test prep companies offers similar advice for the essay. They combine tips about issues like pacing with personal feedback on practice essays. At Kaplan, the essay curriculum emphasizes the "Four P's" -- "prompt, plan, produce and proofread." Students are urged to prepare "information banks," topics from history or personal experience they could likely tap no matter what the question.

Peterson's offers personalized evaluation of practice essays by tutors as part of a $295 online package. Princeton Review is showing its confidence by upping its performance guarantee from 100 to 200 points -- though the company's better math students may point out that isn't quite what it first seems. The scale of the whole test is rising, with a perfect score going from 1600 to 2400.

Chiara Coletti, spokeswoman for the College Board -- which owns the SAT -- disputes the claim the new test is more coachable. It's added a section of reading comprehension questions on shorter passages, which she says students can't drill for. And if students arrive with an essay topic in mind, scorers will penalize them for going off-topic.

The best preparation for students is simply taking practice tests, Coletti said. Students can get free ones for both the SAT and ACTs from their high schools, and also at and, starting in August,

Alex Levine, a rising junior at Andover High School who is taking a Kaplan course this summer, said he's found it worthwhile, though he isn't persuaded Kaplan knows enough about what will be on the new sections to be helpful there.

He'd probably be taking test prep this summer even without the changes, he said. But the essay has added another element of stress -- and he can't be sure a class will cure what ails him.

"I'm what they call a tortured writer," he said during a break in his class this week. "I'm good at looking at the big picture, but I'm not very fast. That's a big disadvantage."

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