The Cost of an SAT Score

Remember the SAT? Remember that sphincter-softening, migraine-killing relief that came from knowing you never had to take it again? The questions are outlandishly difficult. You’ve never seen such vocabulary in your life. The math is more reliably straightforward than the reading, but the essay section makes up for that by asking high school students to construct arguments out of thin air for questions like “are some animals really more equal than others?” and “is it really better to start each day anew, or should every day build on the one before?”

None of this is news. The SAT has been inducing trauma responses in high school juniors since its inception in 1926. It seems to represent every problem that parents, students, and teachers have with the high school curriculum, but intensified and in microcosm. Students complain that curricula demand too much esoteric knowledge, but that’s nothing compared to the shit they’re expected to do on the SAT. How often, in the real world, do you use words like panacea or epicurean? How often do you write 400-word essays in 25 minutes? If you’re like most of America’s student body, the answer to both those questions is “exactly one time”: on the SAT.

Because the skill set required to succeed on the SAT is so specialized and particular, and because school offers so little help with it, parents with the means to do so often send their children to SAT prep courses. These costly programs serve as a standardized testing day camp: students spend a couple of hours per day studying obscure vocabulary, or writing timed practice essays, or cranking out seemingly endless practice worksheets.

Commercial test prep courses claim that they can boost students’ scores by 100 to 200 points, but after studying these claims independently and adding a control group that didn’t take any such courses, researcher Derek Briggs from the University of Colorado School of Education found that these courses were only making improvements of 21 to 34 points on average—and, as Briggs points out in a Wall Street Journal piece on his findings, that’s on top of whatever baseline improvements that motivated students (the ones who are more likely to seek out test prep anyway) can expect to make when they do everything except seek out commercial prep courses. 21 to 34 points per SAT isn’t nothing, but it isn’t worth the thousands of dollars that it costs from Kaplan or the Princeton Review.

Or maybe it is. People who have money to throw around are always going to throw it around, and whatever they buy with that money will consequently be seen as an aspirational product by people with less money. The children of rich families have more time to prepare for the SAT, more money for prep books and classes and tutors, often more pressure on them (and certainly more help from their family social networks) to get into tony schools. Those 21 to 34 points can make or break an Ivy League application.

Children from unmoneyed backgrounds are more likely to spend their free time working than preparing for college entrance exams. They’re not as enthusiastically encouraged to go to expensive private colleges, especially now that the job market is oversaturated with unemployed college grads who bear hundreds of thousands of student loan debt.

I’ve worked as a tutor for almost two years now, and while my work isn’t SAT-specific, I do a fair bit of test prep. I don’t liaise directly with the parents. If I did, I’d beg them to stop spending money trying to buy perfect scores for their miserable children. They see the company that employs me as a bargain, not because it’s cheap, but because it isn’t two thousand dollars. Their children are serious and bright as hell, and I can say without a lick of sarcasm that it is genuinely a delight to teach them about standard sentence construction and the major themes of Elizabethan poetry. What isn’t a delight is the amount of deception that goes into my organization, the number of lies told to parents about their children’s progress to keep those children coming back for more tutoring, to keep those parents dutifully ponying up for more. Make no mistake: the test prep industry is sleazy. It deserves none of the good faith that’s kept it running for so long.

The SAT is changing again. The College Board has re-condensed it (from 2400 points to the classic 1600), tried to make the material on it more relevant to what students learn in school, and paired up with the Khan Academy to produce free online prep videos. David Coleman, the current president of the College Board, is apparently on to us; in a recent New York Times profile, he refers to for-profit test prep providers as “predators who prey on the anxieties of parents and children and provide no real educational benefit.” Companies are sweating.

They needn’t sweat, I don’t think. People with money will always find ways to justify the fact that the costlier version of the thing is better. If the Khan Academy is free and the Princeton Review course is two grand, then the Princeton Review course must be two thousand dollars better. For as long as the SAT persists in attempting to measure and quantify students’ book learning, test prep companies will be driving up to your town in their rickety wagons, selling snake oil to cure what ails you.

Alex King

Alex King

Alex King, a culturally irrelevant Jew who still listens to the Bee Gees without a touch of irony, is also Empire of Loathing's food correspondent. If you don’t like them or their writing or their opinions on the Food Network, you’re right.

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