Equalizing Standards

This past weekend, many Andover students faced what was one of the biggest obstacles of their high school careers—a college admissions standardized test. The SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT Test are often college application requirements, driving some students to begin frantically preparing with tutoring companies, classes, preparation books and online programs up to a year earlier. With increasing competition and pressures on students to attain perfect scores, it has not become unprecedented to hear students casually saying, “I’m going to my SAT prep class later,” or “I have to finish these math sections before I go meet my tutor.” During a four or five-hour long testing period, everyone is tested on the same material in the same setting, but we often do not consider that student preparation can depend on socioeconomic status. All students should be presented with opportunities to prepare for college admissions standardized tests, because affordability is often an excluding factor when it comes to test preparation. Companies like Chyten, located in downtown Andover, Mass., charge an upwards of $135 per hour of SAT tutoring. While the enticing advertisements of “Increase your score by 300 points!” seem well worth the money spent, many students are not able to afford or unwilling to pay the cost. Forty Seven percent of Andover’s student body is on financial aid, and students cannot be expected to utilize companies like Chyten. For example, outside of Andover, Christopher Black, one of the “McGraw-Hill’s SAT” authors, charges nearly $400 for each hour of private tutoring through his company, College Hill Coaching. Advantage Testing, a tutoring company based out of New York City that has now branched out worldwide, charges from $195 to $795 for a 50-minute session, according to “The New York Times.” With such high costs, private tutoring is not an option that is widely available to most students, regardless of where they live. According to separate research done by Stanford University, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and College Board, students from lower-income families score lower on college entrance exams than their wealthier peers, and the achievement gap for test scores between rich and poor students have grown by almost 60 percent since the 1960s. While race, parental education and childhood circumstances may contribute to these numbers, the availability of test preparation—in a world where the college game is driven by both strategy and talent—plays a major concern into how well students perform on the SAT or ACT. To study more cost-effectively, students can turn to test preparation books by College Board, Kaplan and The Princeton Review. College Board’s “SAT Study Guide” costs $21.99—nearly six copies can be bought for the cost of one Chyten tutoring session. These study books are widely available through the OWHL and thoroughly cover test topics, giving practice exams and test-taking tips to students. Using these books alone, however, would not give students a customized program to study through; while they present strong overviews, they do not answer or address students’ specific questions and weaknesses. As of the 2013-2014 school year, the College Counseling Office (CCO) at Andover has begun offering online SAT and ACT preparation courses for students from a company called Prepworks. While this is certainly a step of improvement, the system is still not the most efficient. My personal experience with the site has resulted in multiple login failures and session timeouts while I was in the middle of a practice session. In addition, practicing for a pencil-paper test through an online outlet offers a very different experience from the actual exam. On the other hand, my experience working with preparation books and having a few SAT-tutoring sessions have been more helpful because of the critical timing practice that they offer. Tutors and teachers are able to help customize test preparation to the student’s needs and give them more helpful insight into how to better prepare themselves. The CCO should continue to improve upon test preparation methods for Andover students, such as advance sign-up, optional SAT and ACT preparation classes on weekends, where students can either buy their own preparation books or have them covered by financial aid. A class of about 15 people would allow students to prepare for the SAT or ACT with help from a tutoring professional, and have their questions answered about what can be a very stressful process. This will also offer all Andover students equal opportunities to access and make time out of their busy lifestyles to dedicate to test preparation, without having to worry about their financial situations. Another solution could include bi-weekly SAT practice test simulations where students could reproduce the actual event of a standardized test and read over the answers after. Then, students could raise questions over the problems that they had difficulty with. These simulations would allow students to become more accustomed to the format of the tests, especially if they did not have the chance to prepare beforehand. In the increasingly intense college admissions process, the SAT and ACT are no longer tests that students choose to face without much prior studying. Being a school with a very financially-diverse student body, Andover should take more steps to help equalize the investments that many students are pressured to make for the college admissions process. All students, whether or not they are able to afford test preparation, need to be given the opportunity to access these resources. In what may be the most inevitable and foreboding part of applying for college, students will need all the support they can get, and one of the best ways would be offering more hands-on, interactive instruction and written practice through the CCO.