Standardized Testing

Guidelines for Test Prep Courses

With all the anxiety that, unfortunately, centers around the college application process and, by extension, around standardized testing, it is not surprising that families of seniors, juniors, and even sophomores have found it difficult to resist the lure of SAT/ACT prep courses.

Before investing in a test prep course (and, at the going rates, it is indeed an investment), parents and students would be wise to take calm and business-like stock of the situation. We offer the following remarks as guidelines in that assessment:

  • Certainly, the most cost-effective course is the ‘home’ program of reading, building and reviewing vocabulary lists, taking a steady series of practice tests, and using SAT software regularly on the home computer. For those students with self-discipline and motivation this approach works very well.
  • Consider carefully whether your child really needs a prep course. There are very real costs in terms of time and money. What will your child have to give up in order to make time for the course? Will he or she have to curtail an important extracurricular activity? Will school work begin to suffer? Will these sacrifices cut into your child’s enthusiasm about the prep course?
  • Be wary of prep courses that aggressively solicit your business. The best courses generate more than enough business through word of mouth.
  • Time the course so that it ends just before the test date.
  • Demand to know exactly what the course provides. How much of it is merely repetitive test-taking and how much of it involves verbal and mathematical skill-building, test instruction, and interpretation of test results?
  • If a course promises specific increases in test scores, get that promise in writing and hold the company to that promise.
  • Do not use a prep course for the first round of SAT’s. Save it for the second or third test session when a student’s test needs will be clearer and his or her motivation stronger.
  • Beware of test prep programs or tutors that try to talk you into their even more lucrative college counseling services.
  • Ask them what they provide that your school does not. Remember that the college counselor is the primary contact with the colleges; he or she writes the school recommendation, processes your child’s transcript, and works directly with your child’s teachers.
  • Remember that some test programs are better than others. Consult your college counselor if you are unsure about the quality of a program.
  • Finally remember that any test program can only be effective if a student is committed to it and enthusiastic about it. Do not force a prep course on your child.

The above comments were written by Mr. Sherrod E. Skinner, Director of College Counseling, Milton Academy, Milton, Massachusetts.

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