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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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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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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SAT Disambiguation – Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation

8 key changes pigIn my continuing effort to understand the rhetoric behind and disambiguate the marketing jargon used to describe the redesigned SAT (henceforth referred to as SAT version 15 or SAT v15.0), today I’ll explore what the College Board means by Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation. This high-highfalutin and important sounding language has been bandied about a great deal in order to support the notion that this latest redesign of the SAT has made a radical departure from the ghosts of SATs past. It’s also been held up as the shining example of SAT v15.0 testing “what really matters” to college and career readiness and only things that are “worthy of close attention”. But each time I hear the term it makes me ask “what does Founding Documents really mean?”, “how does this really impact students?”, and “is it a real change to the test?”.

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The no-newer-than-any-other-test-you’ve-never-taken SAT

As we approach the launch of the latest iteration of the SAT, more and more students, counselors, and parents are becoming worried about the “new SAT” and how these changes are going to impact scores and college admissions. These concerns have ranged from reasonable (is there some different that is unlike other tests that we know of) to illogical (will the new SAT test the “new math” and thus unknown and unknowable) to irrational (will colleges not accept the new SAT and taking it keep my child from the college of their dreams).

In hopes alleviating some of the fear and panic around this test I’ve put together this handy list of who should and who shouldn’t be concerned about the upcoming changes to the SAT. And to be clear, I’m not saying that the SAT doesn’t matter and won’t continue to matter, because it will. I’m advocating thinking carefully about how the fact that there are changes to the content of the SAT will have limited impact on most of the people who are concerned about those changes.

Let’s start with those who should ignore the “changes” hype (and just pay attention to preparing well for the test you choose to take… since you still have a choice between SAT and ACT).

  1. Classes of 2018 and onward
    Changes only matter if you have prior context or experience. Having very likely never taken any version of the SAT or PSAT, the classes of 2018 and after should completely ignore all the talk of the changes to the SAT. The version of the SAT they take will be the first and likely only version of the SAT they have ever seen. They should prepare for it much like students have been preparing for the SAT for years. These students should currently be planning their college application timelines and determining when they are going to take exams and focusing on the academic skills they are learning in school that will have lasting value. Any discussion of the old SAT versus the new SAT are completely irrelevant and distracting noise. Students in the class of 2018 and later should no more be worried about the new SAT and its changes than they are about the changes college professors are making to their grading criteria.
  2. Students who are planning to take the redesigned SAT
    Any student who has already determined that they will be taking the redesigned SAT (whether it’s because they are seeking the National Merit Scholarship, schedule doesn’t permit them to take the SAT before the new test launches in March, their school is providing the new SAT for free, etc) should also ignore all the chatter about the changes. Once you’ve reached a decision about which test you are taking it no longer matters that that test is different than it used to be, it only matters what it will be when you take it. The only reason to be aware that it has changed is to ensure that you aren’t practicing with outdated material or information.
  3. Parents
    As a parent your concern shouldn’t be with the newness or changedness of the test but rather with how to make sure your child is best prepared for the test. That preparation might mean choosing to take a different test (since there is the option of SAT or ACT) so as to best display her academic abilities. For most parents your role will remain what it has always been and will continue to be for a long time: the planner, the payer, and the helper. This was true for the 1926 SAT, the 1974 version, as well as the 1994 and 2005 versions (Want to see the history of SAT changes? click here) and will be true when they revise the SAT again in 6 – 10 years. Until then you just need to worry about figuring out how to guide and support your child in taking the test they choose to take, not worrying about the details of the changes.

And now who should be concerned about the fact that the SAT has changed.

  1. College Board
    College Board should and is really concerned about the new SAT. They are concerned that the new test might drive more test-takers to their competition (the ACT) in the short-term and exacerbate the market shift that’s been happening over the last few years. The College Board also has the additional concern that the new test won’t perform as advertised, hoped, or projected. What if, instead of scores being distributed on a nice happy normally distributed bell curve, the results for the redesigned SAT are skewed toward an average score of 650 per section (anyone else remember recentering aka tweeking the curve)? What will happen if the results are completely out of wack with all beta testing? Will colleges still require or accept these scores? Will the changes to the SAT to “align it with the work of schools” (read: align with Common Core) exacerbate the Test Optional movement? The College Board has lots of reasons to be concerned.
  2. ACT
    The team at the Iowa-based newly crowned king of college testing has lots of reasons to worry about the changes to the SAT. Since many of the changes to the SAT address criticisms of the old SAT, ACT is rightly concerned that test-takers may return to ETS’s warm bosom and the comfort of the “known” college admission exam. In redesigning its test, College Board not only address many criticisms of its exam but also took direct shots at perceived areas of superiority that the ACT possessed (and often touted). ACT has lots to be concerned about as it must wonder if this newest SAT (or doppelganger ACT) will retake its position at the top of the psychometric food chain.
  3. Test prep companies and tutors
    Test prep professionals are the ones who should be most concerned about the changes to the SAT. These changes mean that if you’re a test prep person doing your job right you’ve got to learn new stuff and you’ve got to create or find new materials. Changes to the test, while usually causing a spike in business, cause a great deal of work and research for test prep folk. It will take test prep community a while to gather and analyze sample questions and tests in order to learn the ins and out of the new test and the quarks and nuances that can most easily be turned into points. Test prep folks are and should be concerned about the changes, burning the midnight oil, and clicking refresh thousands of times on release days for new samples from College Board.
  4. College counselors of students in the class of 2017
    College counselors should be mildly concerned about the changes to the SAT, especially for the next 12 – 18 months where there are still 3 viable options for college admissions tests. While choice is often good, too many choices just create a big confusing mess, this will probably be true for counselors and students in the class of 2017 until March 2016. Counselors are going to struggle to figure out which of the three college admission tests to recommend, how to interpret the results of the new SAT and PSAT, and how colleges are going to handle comparing students taking different tests. Yes, counselors working with current sophomores will have a bit to be concerned about relative to the changes.
  5. Class of 2017
    Students in the class of 2017 are right to be a little concerned about changes. This class took the old format PSAT, and if they liked it, they may be rightly concerned that the new test might not be as easy for them to get a good score (anytime there is change, how an individual student will handle that change is nigh-impossible to predict). The introduction of the new test will create confusion and thus concern for students. These students who’ve taken the PSAT formatted after the current SAT had some understanding of what they were soon to face, however the introduction of the new SAT could make that 2.5 hour preview entirely moot.

To make a long blog short, not many students or their families should be worried about the newness or changedness of the test until they determine that it actually impacts them. If you’ve determined that you’re going to take the new SAT than its not the newness or changedness of the test that matters so much as making sure you properly prepare (which means ensuring that you have up-to-date practice materials and resources. Unsurprisingly these same preparation concerns have been true since the invention of testing and thus the real concern is not that changes but proper preparation.


The Questions I Get Asked

Recently, I was invited by a small group of mothers to a home to discuss the college admissions process and standardized testing. These moms are well to do and college educated. They are also mostly African-American. Among the many questions and topics of discussion were the questions listed below. I’m just going to post them without commentary and allow you to draw from it what you will.


-How much do test scores really matter to colleges and universities?
-How should I prepare my child for the college admissions tests?
-In general, what are some strategies and support that position students of color for test taking success?
– Do students of color spend as much time preparing for standardized tests?

– Do you perceive students of color to feel as confident about taking the tests? Will the new SAT be helpful to test results in general?


A Tale of Two College Processes

With close of the “college application season,” I’m once again reminded of the stark differences in the college application process for students from low income families and that for the 1%. With every blog or article I read, I’m continually reminded how divided America is in every way. Divided informationally. Divided experiencially. Divided economically. Divided racially. Divided educationally. Just divided. This division is no small matter, it’s a chasm that starts with access to pre-k programming, blossoms in primary school, matures throughout higher education, and culminates in the workplace. The college admissions process is not immune to these conditions and concerns (despite its theoretical claims to a meritocracy). In fact, the college application and admission process may be the very nexus of these myriad issues and bring to a head the years-long growth of inequity between the haves and have-nots. But since I can’t address, cure, or understand all the ills of society, I’ll just explore differences between the college preparation and application process for the haves and have-nots (and yes I’ll ignore America’s shrinking middle class).

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