High hopes for Blair’s new in-school SAT prep course

Oct. 11, 2001, midnight | By Stephen Wertheim | 19 years, 3 months ago

”Better score, better college.” In four simple words, senior Wreh Jalla declares the aspiration of every SAT-taker. His credo compels him to, as he says, give the exam ”my all”—but this year, Jalla will not push himself only on the test day. He will also have the opportunity, for the first time, to invest hours of preparation right here at Blair.

Instead of spending hundreds to thousands of dollars on privately run tutoring services or grappling with dauntingly thick books at home, Jalla is confident that Blair’s brand-new SAT prep course will launch his score skyward and rocket letters of admittance to his doorstep.

Subject matters

In room 142, the day has just begun. ”Let's get these exercises done and these words into our heads!” exclaims Trumbower, striding over to a student who wants to know the definition of ”explicate” (to explain).

With the course's introduction this year, Blair joins other county high schools in offering SAT prep as an elective. Unlike most curriculum-based classes, explains English teacher Silvia Trumbower, this one uses non-traditional methods to emphasize strategy over academic knowledge.

Trumbower and math teacher Catherine Malchodi instruct SAT prep in separate units, swapping their jam-packed classes halfway through the semester. By the grading period’s end, Malchodi hopes her students will know how to simplify problems and budget time efficiently, thereby maximizing their performances. Trumbower will cover every type of verbal question—they’ll grow progressively difficult, just like in the SAT, she says—and she also promises extensive work with building vocabulary.

Additionally, to teach the class, Malchodi and Trumbower say they draw on numerous resources outside standard high school curriculum. Malchodi actually took the private Kaplan course, which concentrated on SAT strategy, and Trumbower’s experience includes teaching the early years of Blair's after-school prep class as well as researching tips and tricks from a variety of preparation books. ”I've done all the homework,” Trumbower says.

On to 1600!

Senior Josh Pesantez has done his share of homework, too. He says the class motivates him to study as soon as he gets home. A boost of 200 points is his hope, although he claims he’s not ”stressing” over a perfect score.

His classmate, junior Elizabeth Camacho, is willing to devote her homework time more to SAT prep than to most of her other courses. To her, the classroom setting is more personal than a book and more convenient than a commercial course. ”I'm happy to have this opportunity,” she says, thankful that the teachers address her individual weaknesses.

Although some data suggests that coached preparation yields below the 100- to 150-point gains most coached courses promise, anecdotal evidence differs starkly. Books, CD-ROMs, Internet lessons and private tutors have all gone into junior Peter Pohwat's preparation; he attributes 200 points of his current score to their help and believes Blair’s new class, now his favorite method of all, will account for a further rise.

Neither Trumbower nor Malchodi will pinpoint what any increase might be, although Carol Blum, the director of high school instruction for Montgomery County Public Schools, calls the in-school course ”comparable” to ones offered outside of school.

Leveling the field

For junior Jessica Valoris, enrolling in a prep class once meant spending two scarce commodities she could not spare. ”With all the costly private courses out there, the SAT seemed to be a measurement of time and money, besides people’s abilities,” she laments.

Even Ned Johnson, president of PrepMatters, a Bethesda-based one-on-one tutoring service that charges $100 per hour, recognizes Valoris' criticism as a problem. ”The reality is that money buys advantage,” he says, noting that the test has, to some extent, ”come full circle” from its original purpose of actually lessening affluence's grip on admission to top colleges.

The desire to counteract the cost of commercial programs, which typically run between $400 and $700, prompted Blair to launch the in-school course this year, according to Malchodi. At no charge, students take home all 664 pages of 10 Real SATs, a book of authentic tests also used by PrepMatters that allows concepts to be reinforced after class.

Now, because she doubts she could afford a commercial course, Valoris is grateful to spend her first period learning the minutiae of a test she views as critical to her college admittance. ”If this class was not available to me, I don't think I could take any prep class at all, and my score would probably not reflect my full potential,” she says. ”I need the SAT to be covered because that's a big factor in my future.”

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Stephen Wertheim. Co-editor-in-chief Stephen Wertheim is deeply committed to reporting, even when it conflicts with such essential life activities as food consumption, sleep and viewership of Seinfeld reruns. In addition to getting carried away with writing and playing violin, Stephen thoroughly enjoys visiting and photographing spots around … More »

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