Study Says SAT Prep Courses Will Not Significantly Boost Scores

By Staff
May 20, 2009

A new report released today indicates that SAT coaching can improve a test-taker's math and reading scores by a mere 30 points on average. But many selective colleges say that even such a minor gain could significantly improve a student's chance of admission.

The study, based on a survey of 246 college admission officials throughout the country by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, questions the value of SAT coaching while it also brings attention to the misuse of standardized test scores with regards to college admissions.

The study found that 20 to 40 percent of officials at 130 institutions said that even a 20-point increase in math or a 10-point increase in reading could dramatically improve a student's chance of being admitted or receiving a scholarship. In contrast, the College Board, the organization which administers the SAT, cautions against using SAT scores as a sole criterion for such decisions.

"If marginal college admission decisions are made on the basis of very small differences in test scores, a small coaching effect might be practically significant," said Derek Briggs, the report's author, who was quoted in USA Today.

Nevertheless, the report criticizes marketing practices by test prep companies which give the impression that those who enroll will see substantial test score gains. The Wall Street Journal notes that according to the report, companies typically charge $1,100 for a class and $100 to $200 an hour for private tutoring, earning $2.5 billion annually from about two million students.

"It breaks my heart to see families who can't afford it spending money they desperately need on test prep when no evidence would indicate that this is money well-spent," said William Fitzsimmons, dean of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, who was quoted in The Journal.

But test prep companies responded that the NACAC report understates the impact of coaching. While national chains such as Kaplan and Princeton review do not quote an average score gain, both claim that scores will improve and offer money-back guarantees for those not satisfied with how they perform on the test.

"If we didn't raise scores in the eyes of the market place," said Paul Kanarek, senior vice president at Princeton Review, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, "we would not be one of the largest players in the market place."

And Seppy Basili, senior vice president at Kaplan, pointed out that the College Board and admission counselors have a "vested interest" in encouraging the notion that test prep doesn't work, because otherwise the SAT favors those wealthy enough to afford the extra coaching.

"It's very uncomfortable for them," he said, "because if test prep works, does everyone have equal access?"

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