Test Prep: Are test prep programs really worth it?

It’s a scorching summer morning as Senior Cassandra Vallecilla steps in a classroom full of students. As she sits down, a standardized test is slapped in front of her: the SAT. The timer starts; she begins taking her exam.

Wanting to improve her score on the SAT, Vallecilla took Testmasters, a well-known test prep program. It costed $700, but Vallecilla says the preparation was worth the cost.

“I’ve improved my math score and my reading score by a significant amount,” Vallecilla said. “I feel less nervous and more prepared for the exam.”

Vallecilla said it improved her practice score by over 300 points and feels confident about taking the test this year.

Most test prep programs provide customers with practice exams, classrooms sessions with instructors, practice books, and other review materials and promise significant improvements in test scores.

But in 2009, the National Association for College Admission Counseling released a study concluding that most students had only small increases in test scores after taking a commercial test prep course. The NACAC recommended inexpensive alternatives, such as books and the internet, to prepare for college entrance exams.

Junior Hanah Choice took Prime Score, another test prep program.

“[They] taught me to go through problem solving steps so I wouldn’t miss questions carelessness,” Choice said. “[They] also gave tips on how to get certain questions on math sections with shortcuts…”

Choice claims their test taking strategies are helpful, but thinks the learning environment could be structured differently.

“…Sometimes I felt like the other students in the class were spending too much time trying to question the reasoning of each specific question or sentence in a passage,” Choice said. “I would have liked being grouped in a class that shared the similarities of the weaknesses and strengths.”

Studying independently is the option senior David Vien recommends.

“If you have your own initiative, you can buy some books and study yourself,”  Vien said. “You don’t need someone else to tell you how to study because the books and the people teach the same thing.”

Vien, a National Merit Semi-finalist, scored well after studying on his own. However the method of studying depends on the person, according to counselor Sara Tones.

“The thing about a course is that they can really help you analyze your strengths and weaknesses,” Tones said. “So if you can’t be honest with yourself about that kind of stuff, doing a book study by yourself won’t be as beneficial.”

For students who want a structured test-prep program without the price tag, districts and schools provide free courses.

This year, the district is offering a test prep program for juniors with high scores on last fall’s Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. The Superintendent’s Academically Talented Scholars is to prepare students for the PSAT on October 17. When the scores for this year’s PSAT are released, the top-scoring sophomores will be invited to join the program.

“It is also a mentorship program to help students prepare for college, the test, and for all of those things that come with it,” Tones said. “It combines all those things we tell you are important in high school, into one program.”

English Sarah Urban, who teaches College Prep at Kerr, likes the class because it focuses on the student’s problems.

“I like that you can take [the class] twice and it can be customized with two different course codes, so you can actually take it two times in four years,” she said. “I think that it’s the best one in the district.”

Students who are interested in taking a test prep course may sign up online. Those who want to take a free course may discuss it with their counselor. The counselors’ office also has free study guides.

Online, College Board has free resources such as an SAT practice test and a “SAT question of the Day.”

However students choose to prepare, the NACAC says that preparation is important for everyone, and Vallecilla agrees.

“There is a lot of logic on the SAT,” Vallecilla said.  “Test prep programs teaches you the logic behind the test that we don’t know.”

Addition: Practice writing cursive!