The cost of test preparation links wealth to scores
by Katie Zhao, ’19; Sammy Bonasso, ’20; and Josie Stewart, ’21
Two years ago, the SAT and ACT were taken a total of 477 times by UAHS students in the Class of 2017.*
Compare this to 1926, when a meager 8,000 students nationwide displayed their English and math skills on the first Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Thirty years later, the American College Test (ACT) emerged to rival to the SAT.
In their long reign, the SAT and ACT have contributed to the increased
competition in the American college landscape. Students striving for top scores often pay for professional test preparation, tying economic status to test scores and ultimately the college admissions process.
Sophomore Alain Welliver believes students should prepare for standardized tests before taking them, such as by taking practice tests or courses. Welliver took a Princeton Review course over the summer, costing around $800, but has not used direct tutoring.
In two weeks, Welliver’s score improved by over 100 points. He believes the course—and most preparation services—are worth the cost as they improve students’ test-taking skills.
“People say the SAT is not a coachable course. It absolutely is,” Welliver said. “[Scores] directly [correlate] to how much you prepare.”
Another sophomore, Thrayu Sankarraman, has also started preparing for standardized tests and agrees with Welliver about the value of test prep.
“Test-taking is an important skill and practicing is absolutely necessary. If you don’t practice, you’re not going to master it,” Sankarraman said. “You should make the most of what you have and utilize your resources. Ask questions, practice under test conditions, [and] look for good strategies so you can practice and be good for the test.”
The $800 course may seem excessive to some, but others are willing to pay any amount to get their desired score.
“I’d spend maybe a couple grand,” Welliver said. “I mean, think about it. It’s a career we’re talking about here: good college, good career, good life.”
In a voluntary Arlingtonian survey of 152 students, 36 percent said they would or already have spent more than $500 to get what they consider to be a good test score.
In the same survey, 62 percent of students who are not done with ACT and SAT testing said they would be willing to take it three or more times. 50 percent of students done with testing said they took either test three or more times.
“The more times you take it, the better you get at it. It’s that simple,” Welliver said. “I would probably take it three to four or five times. Maximum five times for me.”
Although many students in UA have access to a variety of preparation services and countless opportunities to take the tests, some students cannot afford these readiness measures.
In a voluntary Arlingtonian survey of 152 UAHS students, 47 percent of students spent no money on preparation materials.
“[The tests] are totally based on socioeconomic status,” Welliver said. “Middle class and upper class people can get a lot of prep for this test, whereas lower class people, they just kind of have to go in and take it. They can’t afford, like, an $800 Princeton Review class.”
The UAHS class of 2017 boasted an average ACT score of 27 compared to the Ohio average of 22 and national average of 21. This reflects a study done by the College Board which holds that areas with a higher economic standing typically score better.
THROUGH THE EYE OF ADMISSIONS
Compared with the opinions of students like Welliver and Sankarraman, teachers and college counselors hold different beliefs on the importance of the test.
Kathy Moore, the College and Career Counselor at UAHS, said the the ACT and SAT do not truly measure the understanding of students or predict success in the future, but are still fairly important in the application process.
Although these tests are a part of the process, Moore said they aren’t the only deciding factor in college admissions.
“[College admissions are] very holistic. It’s GPA, rigor of classes, course work, test scores, essays, letters of recommendation, leadership and the list goes on. So there are a lot of factors. [The ACT are SAT] are just one factor,” Moore said.
EARLY TO STRESS
In the voluntary Arlingtonian survey of 150 UAHS students, 13 percent said that they began preparing for the ACT or SAT as a freshman or before. While studying is important, Moore finds ninth grade to be too early to begin worrying about one test.
“In one sense, [it’s] good for the [students preparing early] if they are motivated to prepare and study and they enjoy doing that,” Moore said. “On the other hand, it makes me sad that we’re focusing on this test that young when there’s so much more to learning and school than that test.”
Although students should prepare, even someone who helps students get into their dream colleges, expensive preparation materials are not always helpful.
“If I’m talking to families, I tell them to never put more into it than their student is willing to put into it,” Moore said. “Sometimes families will spend thousands of dollars and the student’s not really invested or motivated to get something out of the practice.”
ADVANTAGE IN WEALTH
Moore believes students need support and preparation to get the score that they want, but this isn’t always possible for families who can’t pay for repeated testing and study materials.
“I think not everyone can afford that amount of test prep, so that’s the frustrating part for me. It creates an uneven field for [students],” Moore said.
Brian Stewart, a tutor who has written several test preparation books on the ACT, PSAT and SAT for the company Barron’s, believes several factors determine test scores, not just economic status. These include a student’s starting point, challenging classes and even reading level.
“Reading widely helps a great deal. So much of these tests are based on reading comprehension, and also grammar. Even on the math [section] with word problems [there is reading],” Stewart said. “So, if you’re a really good reader, you’re going to do well on these tests. So just read for fun. Going to the library and picking out some books will help.”
Regardless, Stewart indicated an article from Psychology Today titled “Why Do Rich Kids Have Higher Standardized Test Scores?” when asked about the correlation between wealth and testing ability.
The article cites studies that show lower-income students tend to “suffer from more stress in early childhood, have more limited access to enriching educational resources, and receive less exposure to spoken language and vocabulary early in life,” which, the articles states, “can lead to changes in brain structure, cognitive skills, and lower academic achievement.”
CHASING THE HIGH
If students are able to afford test prep, they often try to use as many resources as possible. However, test takers can become obsessed with chasing increasingly higher scores.
“I certainly did have a friend or two who became obsessed with [the ACT],” said Philip Chalmers, a class of 2018 UA alum. “I had one friend who, even though he had scored a 35 already, took it again just to improve his writing score. I thought that was completely unnecessary. At that point, colleges aren’t going to look at the difference between a 35 and a 36.”
With Upper Arlington’s higher economic status and academically rigorous environment, competitive students may have to dive headfirst into the arms race for extraordinary scores.
After all her early preperation, Sankarraman said she looks toward a high score on the ACT.
“I would want to expect maybe a 34 or 35,” Sankarraman said.
Welliver also hopes to come away with a 99th percentile score.
“[A good score] is probably like a 1540. That’s like the the average SAT score for someone going to Dartmouth or Stanford,” Welliver said. “But preferably, perfect.”