On to 1600!

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

A guide to SAT preparation at Blair with a look beyond

"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 only push himself on the test day. To ensure himself an edge over millions of competitors nationwide, he'll also have the opportunity to invest hours of preparation right, for the first time, at Blair.

Instead of spending hundreds to thousands of dollars on a privately-run tutoring service or grappling with imposingly thick books at home, Jalla is confident that Blair's new semester-long SAT prep course will launch his score skyward and, by extension, will rocket letters of admittance to his doorstep.

The path to an improved score begins with what every preparatory company and school course capitalize on but not everyone knows: more than academic knowledge alone determines results. "The SAT is not an achievement test," says Cathy Henderson-Stein, whose advice in the career center guides students to the method of preparation most suitable for them. "There are tricks and strategies people can learn to improve their scores, to better reflect their knowledge."

How Blair compares

In room 142, the day has just begun and the bell just rung, but nobody's head hunches over in the precarious procedure of early morning classroom sleep. Yes, a diverse group of faces stare uniformly downward, but the position is borne of focus directed toward piles of orange index-turned-flash cards. "Let's get these exercises done and these words into our heads!" exclaims English teacher Silvia Trumbower, striding over to a student who wants to know the definition of "explicate" (to explain).

Trumbower and math teacher Catherine Malchodi instruct the SAT prep class during separate marking periods according to their disciplines; that feature of dual instructors is not found in courses administered by Kaplan Education Centers or Princeton Review, the nation's two largest test preparation companies. By the semester's end, Malchodi will have spent one week explaining the test's format and six weeks teaching algebra and geometry concepts. She won't pinpoint what kind of score increase students can expect, but she says that her emphasis on simplifying problems should allow students, even those who lack mastery of math and English, to budget their time efficiently, thereby maximizing their performances.

The course's content bears a similarity to the content offered by PrepMatters, a Bethesda-based tutoring organization that charges $100 for one hour of one-on-one lessons, says its founder and president, Ned Johnson. He expects his average client to enjoy a 150-point rise in about three months-the industry standard is 100 to 150 points, he says-with outliers ranging from negligible score movement to gains of over 300 points.

While conceding that a school course could be beneficial for some students, Johnson warns against following the "deeply ingrained" habits that public education develops, such as the desire to answer every question, and draws the distinction between what publicly and privately taught programs offer. "The biggest difference is that very frequently instructors in a Montgomery County course are very bright and very good teachers but often teach the SAT more like it's an arithmetic or English exam," he says. "And people like [me], who've spent years doing this, tend to look at the test more by trying to deconstruct it and find the tricks and the insights that make a student able to outthink the test."

However, Malchodi and Trumbower say they draw on a number of resources beyond standard classroom material. Malchodi actually took the Kaplan course, which concentrated on test 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, passing along to students the methods she finds most helpful.

Both instructors recognize the SAT's non-traditional nature. "I don't teach people how to read," Trumbower says. Instead, she concentrates on skills specific to the SAT.

Johnson and Trumbower do agree that private tutoring's strength lies in its ability to cater more to an individual's specific strengths and weaknesses than Blair's course can, as Johnson spends time only on what his client truly needs, which Trumbower cannot do even in the most motivated of classroom environments.

To senior Josh Pesantez, though, the in-school elective yields benefits he would not derive from a paid program. "In a private course, you can slack off, not pay much attention and not get hurt with a grade. Here, I'm putting in 100 percent because I want to benefit my SAT score and my GPA," he says. Because the class motivates Pesantez to study as soon as he arrives home, he's seen his study habits improve with respect to the SAT class and beyond into his other subjects.

Moreover, one of his classmates, junior Elizabeth Camacho, says the course leaves her weekends free-as many commercial courses would not do-and she'll take advantage by using some of that time to study alone, supplementing her instruction. "That will take me far," she says, her voice rising optimistically.

The numbers game

But exactly how far she might reach has long been a topic of debate. Most test prep companies maintain that scores will improve by at least 100 points, and if those gains are not realized, some allow participants to retake the course for free. Pesantez hopes Blair's class will boost his score 200 points—although he says he's not "stressing" over a perfect score. His attitude might be wise, suggests a 1999 study Washington Consumers' CHECKBOOK magazine conducted of over 3,400 high school seniors from Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C. One year after they first took the SAT, the study's subjects who prepared with private courses gained 80 points, those who used private tutors gained 57 and those who enrolled in school or school district courses gained 53 points. The study also revealed that those who used no specific preparation material or course gained 43 points, inflating the apparent benefits of preparation.

Similar results were reached in Chance, a publication of the American Statistical Association, in a 2001 analysis of 14,000 students. Author Derek Briggs hypothesizes that coached courses aren't very beneficial because participants are naturally more motivated to improve their scores and better prepared to retake the test than their uncoached counterparts.

For those same reasons, Malchodi argues that coaching is necessary to harnesses students' desires to succeed on the SAT. "I think if [students are] motivated and they have nowhere to go to tap into that, they're no better off than someone who's never seen the test before," she says.

Anecdotal evidence starkly counters the data. Books, CD-ROMs, Internet courses 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 boost. And he is far from alone, as Henderson-Stein observes from working with students whose scores "go up much higher" than the data indicates. "My experience has been that an average of a 100-point increase is not the least bit unusual," maintains Henderson-Stein, surprised by the study's results.

Perhaps if there is one way to reconcile the conflicting views, then the answer lies with each individual's level of commitment. Explains guidance counselor Melba Battle, "If you just go sit in the review course and don't do anything else, you're not going to improve your score. You're going to need dedication to work toward [an improvement] by doing the homework the teachers give you."

She also notes that review classes are just that-review-and there is no substitute for simply reading, which teaches comprehension and builds vocabulary, two skills essential to SAT success.

Leveling the field

For junior Jessica Valoris, however, enrolling in a class once meant spending two scarce commodities that she, like many others, could hardly 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 bemoans.

Even Johnson 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 expensiveness of commercial programs, most of which run participants between $400 and $700, was a key motivation for Blair's launch of 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 that allow concepts to be revisited and reinforced at home.

Now, because she doubts she could afford a commercial course, Valoris is grateful to spend her first periods learning that, for example, punctilious and jurisprudence mean meticulous and legal philosophy, respectively. "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."

Under conditions where some students believe that a few points in their favor can make all the difference, Valoris has sounded a common theme amongst her 30 fellow classmates. True, there may barely be enough chairs to hold them all; quite unlike the cozy class size of 12 that Princeton Review promises is its maximum. But maybe, notes Trumbower, the fact that the room is filled to capacity reveals an attitude of determination generated by the shared and immediate goal of each individual, one that senior Sainabou Nyang embodies: "If more work will help me get a bigger score, bring on the work. The more I have to do, the more I will help myself."

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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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