Choosing a Test Prep Program

01rfd-image-custom1Often I’m asked for help selecting a test prep program, course, or tutor (usually in an email that provides almost no details of the situation of the asker…but that’s another story) and of course, if you ask me a question this leads to a 500+ word screed as a response. Since ranting in private spaces only helps a few, I’ve decided to share my thoughts with a wider audience (all 6 of you who read my blog posts).


The criteria and considerations below are some of the things you should look for when you are deciding how to prepare for an admission test. You may find other things have to be included in your decision-making but I highly recommend that you at a minimum consider these factors. I’ll outline my rationale for each factor as I go. 


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Who Wins With SAT and ACT School Day?

This is a draft.. I never finished it.. but i’m tired of working on it so it goes up as is.

This past fall NYC DOE officially announced their participation in College Board’s SAT School Day program. This program had been quietly piloted in 40 schools in March of 2015, is being expanded to 90ish schools in spring of 2016, until it finally encompasses all of the approximately 496 NYC public high schools in 2017. Naturally, being the eduprenerd (educator + entrepreneur + nerd) and test prep wonk that I am, this rekindled my interest in the SAT School Day Program and sparked the following analysis of its implications, benefits, and drawbacks.

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Hate-Reads: College Admission, Testing, and the Media

hatereadThe media is chock full of trash when it comes to reporting on college admissions and especially college admission testing. There are few writers who provide the nuance and thoughtfulness that this process deserves. If I were a parent negotiating this process I’d be hard-pressed to sort the wheat from the chaff. So to help out, I’m here to give you a handy guide what to look for and who to read for your college admission information.
First, let’s talk about what I look for in “good reporting.”

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What is SHSAT test preparation?


Over the past 40 years, the representation of black and Hispanic students in New York City’s top performing high schools has declined sharply and calls for action have become increasingly loud. These calls hit a high note in 2012 when the NAACP filed a legal complaint against the city and reached a crescendo in 2013 when then mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio made bringing change to the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and the specialized high school admissions process the center point of his education platform. As mayor, Mr. de Blasio  has continued to point to “expensive test preparation” (or rather the lack of it in certain communities) as a key contributor to the disparity in access to the city’s elite high schools. Unfortunately, when the mayor (and many politicians and educational leaders) discuss test preparation they far too often neglect to actually define what “test preparation” is, who uses it, and what impact it actually has.

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Assessing the Assessment: SHSAT

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 4.06.28 PMAs we approach September in NY, I enter that special time of year affectionately know as “fall hell”, when parents of students in every transition grade realize that admission testing is looming and they need to figure it out. Parents of 11th and 12th graders have to think about SAT and FAFSA, parents of 7th and 8th graders are thinking about the ISEE, SSAT, SHSAT, TACHS, COOP, and/or HSPT, parents of 4th and 5th graders are thinking about the SSAT, ISEE and/or Hunter High School exam. This time of year can clearly bring lots of stress and confusion.

In this post, I’ll take on the SHSAT and give a little insight into what makes it what it is. Let’s go…

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The Use and Abuse of the SAT

This post is a collaboration between myself and James Murphy. James Murphy, right, is the director of tutoring for the Princeton Review in New England and a freelance writer with almost two decades of experience getting students ready for the SAT.

Are New York City’s teachers as smart as their students? John Sexton, the ex-president of New York University, thinks not.  During a talk he gave on the future of American universities at the Library of Congress last week, he claimed that in the past five years, New York City public schools have been hiring “teachers that have lower SAT scores than the students you are graduating. That’s a ticket for failure, because you’re hiring from the bottom half of the existing class.”

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College Board SAT Educator Reporting Panel – Amazing, useful, needed

In a year with a mis-timed SAT (leading to 2 sections not counting), cheating scandals, delayed PSAT results, incessant marketing of a practice tool as the solution to societal inequity and educational injustice, and fights between SAT and ACT, it’s easy to understand why the one of the few positive changes that came with the revised SAT would have been largely overlooked and unmentioned. This past January, College Board completely revamped the way it delivered scores to schools. The organization that owns and is responsible for designing the SAT not44493 only revamped its test (for the first time since 2005) but also revamped its reporting portal for school counselors for the first time since the dark ages. The new school reporting portal changes should provide significant benefit to schools and teachers around the country. Continue reading College Board SAT Educator Reporting Panel – Amazing, useful, needed


ACT-Kaplan Join Forces to Increase …


On Tuesday April 19th, I woke to find the following press release in my inbox.

Las Vegas, NV (April 18th, 2016) – ACT, (the other test maker) has decided to partner with Kaplan Test Prep to offer free standardized test prep, in a new effort to emphasize the ineffectuality of standardized tests. This new state of the art online testing program will be at least partially live (Take that KHAN ACADEMY with your pre-recorded doodles). Though it’s not entirely free to all students, Kaplan promises to provide lots of free test prep to low-income students to help dial down the reality that it is a for-profit company making bank on this new partnership. With this new program, Kaplan promises to utilize the same top-notch online portal used for classes at Kaplan University. (Ranked 137th Best Online College and ranked equally with the notable Oral Roberts University.)


This new program entitled: Kaplan Online Program Outreach for Underserved Tutorials (or simply KOPOUT) features lessons from seasoned Master Ninjas who no longer need silly things like textbooks to cover the material that isn’t showing up in high school this year.


“We know that helping kids help understand the help they need should not go unhelped,” says ACT COO, Kyle Ren. “After all, we think it’s beneficial to work with test prep companies, as they’ve made it their business to recognize the flaws we’ve created. It’s like, you know when like the Terminator came back and he was like, I’m not here to kill you like I’m here to help save your kid from the shiny new guy who wants to kill you. And he can like mold himself into anything at all, and that’s like, useful and stuff. So we’ve got the Terminator on our side. Or are we the Terminator? I don’t know. I guess one of us is the Terminator.”


KOPOUT also includes the following features:

  • An online platform with prerecorded lessons over the backdrop of a 1980’s yearbook setting.
  • Sciencey science for the Science section discussing the charts and graphs and other things ACT takes for college level Science.
  • Real ACT questions which are totally different from the ones you’d find in the book they’re about to publish for more money.
  • A social network of like-minded kids using the service as an excuse for learning instead of snap chatting nasty comments to their ex-girlfriend.
  • Quinoa.

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These times they are a’changing

This year has been a hectic time in college admission testing (and college access in general). There have been significant changes to the SAT, minor changes to the ACT, radical changes to the financial aid process (PPY anyone?), and heated discussions about radically overhauling the college admissions process itself. In the wake of all these changes parents and students are understandably left confused and concerned. Heck, many college access professionals are left confused and concerned. So in an effort to help calm nerves and cut through the noise surrounding these issues, I’ll summarize the changes, help you understand how concerned you should be, and point you to useful resources.


PSAT and SAT Changes

This past week, students (but not tutors) finally saw the revision to the SAT that the College Board announced in 2014 and previewed on the 2015 PSAT. While these changes are substantial, they are not a real cause for concern for most students. Students who will take the new SAT will likely have never taken the old SAT and thus this SAT will be the only one they know (for us older people who remember a different SAT, the changes may be concerning but the good news is you’re not taking the new test). The concern for students who are applying to college is the same as it was last year “should I take the SAT or ACT). The newness of the SAT alone isn’t the answer to this question but doesn’t influence the discussion. But for the parents and advisors here is a quick summary of what I think are the key changes.


Changes that matter:

  • More time per question
  • No more guessing penalty
  • Optional Essay
  • Fewer math topics
  • More direct writing and questioning style
  • More complex reading passage
  • No more studying vocab just for the SAT
  • Longer wait to get scores back


What it means for families

The SAT changes will not significant impact the process or plans that families should make when preparing for the exam. The biggest impact on families is that they’ll be forced to spend more time researching to verify that what they’ve heard is accurate (most of it isn’t or is spun in a weird way). The secondary impact is that the newness of the SAT will require more careful analysis of who you select to provide test preparation or what books you purchase. Any test prep program or book that hasn’t been rewritten to reflect the changes to the test will not be useful at all.


ACT Changes (and Struggles)

Unlike the significant changes that came to the PSAT and SAT this year, the ACT introduced only a minor change to its optional essay, a dual passage in the Reading test, and played with the question type distribution in Science. Since only about 10% of colleges require the ACT (or SAT) essay, the change to it will likely only effect a small portion of test takers. Of more significance is the delays that plagued ACT in the fall and the questions that continue about the reliability and validity of the essay scores. For all score administration in the fall, scores ACT experienced unusual delays getting scores back to students (and to colleges). This meant that many kids applying early action or early decision were put under additional stress as they worried about whether their scores would reach their dream school before application deadline.


What it means for families

For families this means that planning ahead is even more important than it has been in the past. We should expect both SAT and ACT to continue to be late returning scores and thus students should test well in advance of any deadlines to account for delay sending results to colleges. This will be especially important for anyone considering Early Decision or Early Action in the fall. I’d recommend that anyone considering early application should try to take their (second and) last test in June or September. However, anyone preparing for the ACT should make sure that they are using practice materials that has been updated to reflect the essay change if they are planning to site for the essay. SAT and ACT test dates.


Financial Aid Changes

Beginning in 2016 for the 2017-18 academic year, the financial aid process will change to allow families to submit the FAFSA form earlier in the year (October instead of January). The big change will be the use of tax forms from 2 years prior, currently referred to as PPY (prior prior year). This is intended to make the process easier by giving families more time to gather and submit paperwork. USA Today has a summary that’s worth reading.


What this means for families

We won’t know exactly for a few years the complete impact of this but families who are applying to college in the 2016 – 2018 must stay on top of news about changes to this process. With all the changes going on already stress and burdened school counselors must be supported to ensure that families have complete information.  The good news is that


College Admission Process – no changes, but lots of speculation

This year a saw the launch of the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, which proposes to radically alter the college admissions process. This coalition was led by many leading universities including every Ivy League school, Stanford, U of Chicago, UNC, Amherst, U of Michigan and many others, is creating a process that allows students as young as 9th grade to begin compiling a portfolio of work that will more full express who he is academically and personally. The Coalition also seeks to ensure that its members provide value to students by setting requirements on member school for graduation rates and financial aid. The change would create what they believe is a more comprehensive and less stressful process. More here in the Times

What this means for families

All the details of the Coalition are not worked out yet but it certainly bears watching. Parents should monitor these changes as they happen so that when it impacts your child you’re fully informed.


The good news about changes to the college process is that most of them doing happen quickly. Parents are best served by planning and researching 2 years ahead of any transition the child is making and that will keep this process relatively calm.



SAT Disambiguation – Real World Math Problems

Real world CB definitionSince the announced changes to the SAT in March 2014, College Board officials have been on the world tour of high schools and education conferences trying to wow educators with their shiny new toy, the 15th iteration of the SAT. They’ve published exhaustive treatises on the research and specifications behind the changes, hosted dozens of gatherings and yet have provided no real information for the students who will actually take the test. These kids have been left to decode marketing-speak extolling the virtues of a test “more aligned with school work” and “based on a foundation of research.” Newspapers have picked up on the College Board’s talking points and parroted them without providing clarification, further confusing families and adding to the anxiety surrounding an already fraught time. So this leaves little ole me with the herculean task of laying plain that which has been obfuscated. I’ve been trying to work through each of the “8 Key Changes” and translate them into laymen’s terms so that they are more easily digested. Previously, I analyzed “Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation“. As with that analysis, here I’ll also seek to answer these three key questions:

  1. What does this really mean?
  2. What level of impact will this change have for test takers?
  3. Is this really a change or is it simply a redistribution of the same ole same?

So, let’s do this thing!

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