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When in Doubt, Pick C?

When my son was preparing to take the ACT, I looked into some private tutoring services. After receiving a quote in the range of $1000 for their services, I decided to go a separate route. I purchased him 3 study guides for about a total cost $100. Those study guides sat in his room and collected dust for 6 months - they were never even opened. On the morning of his assigned test, he began to panic realizing how unprepared he was. While driving to the test, I attempted to give him a pep talk by reminding him of an unfair, but nonetheless true fact. He was 75% more prepared to score well on this standardized test for the simple fact that he tests well. My son never panics during tests; he actually enjoys taking them. He is the student who wouldn't hand in an assignment because he was too lazy to get around to it, but would then score a perfect score on the test. As expected, he did extremely well on the ACT and was accepted into his first choice school. However, I have always wondered, had he studied, what could his score have been. That is really the crux of the issue - how effective are test prep programs at actually raising one's score?


With certain programs charging hundreds to thousands of dollars for their services, it is no wonder they advertise huge test score improvements. However, in a 2008 article for NACAC, Derek C. Briggs, Ph.D argues that research proves actual improvement is quite nominal - 30 points overall improvement on the SAT and 1.5 improvement on the ACT. Furthermore, research shows that simply retaking the test (without added prep works) usually yields an improved score. Essentially, simple familiarity yields better scores. If that is the case, is test prep worth the time and money. Complicating the issue further, additional research in Brigg's articles states that there is an increased acceptance rate from many universities from even a nominal rise (10 - 15 points) in tests scores. So, even if one cannot expect the 100 - 150 point score improvement that certain services offer, if a 15 point improvement can better your success rate of getting into the school of your choice - isn't it still worth it?


There is also the issue of overall fairness. If participating in some form of test prep rises your score even moderately to a point that it raises your chances to be accepted into a school of your choice, doesn't that put at a disadvantage, those who cannot afford test prep courses. Both the ACT and SAT were designed to provide an unbiased and Un-subjected representation of an individuals intelligence and ability to succeed academically. It should be above socio-economic factors. And, yet, with the price-tag many test prep services charge, it seems there is a distinct disadvantage towards those who cannot afford these services.


Clearly the issue of standardized test prep is a complicated one — with many different facets. My advise, if you are not gifted with unusually good test taking abilities, you should prepare some before taking these test. Even if it means, taking practice tests, to ensure you are familiar with the process. However, as a word of warning, you may take the ACT as many times as you like and only have to report your top score to schools with your application, however, the SAT takes a composite score of all your test scores. So you many want to make sure you limit your SAT test practices to unofficial tests. Many of these, as well as other free test taking services can be found on my Test Prep Page.

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