Saturday, April 05, 2008

Prep Big Business

From The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Long after the end of the regular school day, light from a classroom streamed into a dimmed hallway at Magnificat High School in Rocky River. Ten juniors, from Magnificat and several other schools, sat with workbooks and calculators while Charles Fuller, a teacher at Benedictine High School, made sure no one had unresolved questions or problems.

When he turned off the light to focus on a PowerPoint presentation, the students leaned forward attentively -- looking into their future, in one sense, as they searched for an edge in the competition for college.

For high school seniors, late winter and spring is the time of waiting for word about college admission and financial aid. For juniors, the process is just starting.

Some have already taken the standardized SAT and ACT admissions tests, but others are getting ready for test dates in April, May and June. Classes like Fuller's, part of a six-week course run by The College Review, a Beachwood counseling and test prep company, are becoming popular with families seeking a boost.

Popular perception once had it that a good night's sleep was the best way, or only way, to prepare for college entrance tests. Now that would be like skipping spring training to get a good rest before baseball season.

"It's critically important that students prepare for standardized tests," said Randall Deike, vice president for enrollment management at Case Western Reserve University. "Taking practice tests and understanding what to expect in the test environment can be incredibly helpful."

"It is inappropriate for a student to go in unprepared," said College Review manager Susan Henschel. "They do have to do outside work to learn specific strategies. Test scores are what open the door to college. Ohio is getting more into it because the requirements of state schools are going up. People are realizing they need formal preparation."

From scattered tutors and a few books, test-prep has grown to a mass industry. Including everything from iPod math exercises to vocabulary-building graphic novels, it ranges from online courses, both paid and free, to a variety of classes and individual tutoring that can cost upwards of $4,000.

Nationally, Kaplan Inc. and Princeton Review are the biggest test-prep companies. The past decade has seen particular growth, said Kristen Campbell, director of SAT and ACT programs at Kaplan.

"It's not about if you go to college, it's about where you go to college that has further fueled the competition," she said.

"Today's families know this. They want to create the best application possible.

"Hope is not a strategy. It definitely was a common perception that you couldn't prepare for these tests, but we always recommend getting as much practice as possible -- knowing the first thing you're going to face is the essay, when to guess or not, getting used to the types of questions."

"These are all good students," Fuller said during a break in his College Review class at Magnificat, "and everyone wants to shoot for that perfect score. The goal is to improve every section you do."

Goals must be individual, Henschel said. "It's customized to the student. We ask what score they want, do diagnostic work to determine if they can reach it, and help them reach it. The scores come back to show it."

College Review, which works with both individuals and school districts, uses state-certified teachers with good track records in preparation. It has grown to serve students statewide and beyond since starting 12 years ago. The work is no longer seasonal. "It's continuous," Henschel said. "Students are taking the exams from January to June of 11th grade. And because of admissions requirements going up, especially in Ohio, many students consider 'rolling admission' as the most favorable option. Summer is one of our busiest times."

Research by the College Board, which administers the SAT, found that students can increase their scores about 40 points by taking the exam a second time after taking a short course.

Formal courses or pricey personal tutoring are not the only options. The College Board and ACT offer free online quizzes and questions in addition to paid prep.

Mary Nixon of Cleveland Scholarship Programs,, a nonprofit resource and counseling center that works with individuals and about 100 schools in the area, prefers An online service with the Ohio Public Library Information Network, it has a wide variety of practice tests, including the SAT and ACT, and can be tailored to focus on specific subjects.

"It's portable and interactive," she said.

But all the anxiety, and the focus on testing, "worries a lot of admissions professionals," said Brian Williams, vice president for enrollment at John Carroll University.

"What I tend to see is students and families trying to be as competitive as possible," he said. "But there's a number of different ways colleges view test scores in the admission process. The choice of focusing on tests varies. For the majority of colleges, a swing in test scores will not make or break admittance or scholarship. So many other factors tell a larger story."

In fact, more than 750 of the nation's 4,000 colleges, including more than two dozen in Ohio, have made the ACT and SAT optional. Randall Deike at Case is an advocate of standardized tests in admissions but stressed they are only one factor. Preparing for the tests, especially with practice exams, is vital, he said, but students should first take advantage of what's available online. "The College Board and ACT sites do an excellent job."

Purchasing services "depends on the student" and should be a family decision. There is debate about whether tutoring makes a significant difference, Deike said, though the coaching, motivation and structure of classes help some students.

For families seeking any edge, however, or the reassurance of feeling they did what they could to gain one, an improved test score or one that hits a goal is the dividend of prep classes.

"There was screaming in the background," Henschel said last week, after a round of phone calls from parents when the latest SAT scores went out. "It was pretty exciting. They were pleased."

Thursday, April 03, 2008

How will you perform?

A new study says that you will do pretty much the same where ever you go [I guess that means, I would have skipped as much class at CMU as I did at Penn State]

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

that damn essay

I don't write much about the essay, though I have given several lessons on it [they are soon to make it to a near you]

This article regarding the length of the essay may be a few years old, but in terms of standardized testing, it is fresh.