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How College Test Prep Favors Wealthy Students


Many high school students spent the winter break preparing for the next round of SAT and ACT college entrance exams. Journalist Paul Tough has reported on students heading to college and the tests they have to take. He recently talked with Think host Krys Boyd about how decisions based on standardized test scores — rather than grades — usually favor applicants who come from wealthy families.

His book is called “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us."


What does a student get when they go through an expensive test prep company?  

Ned Johnson runs a company called Prep Matters in Washington, D.C., and he let me sort of embed myself in his tutoring center for a few months, and it was remarkable. I expected for $400 an hour that he would be cramming their heads with as much algebra and reading comprehension strategies as possible. But, he really wasn't.

He spent a lot of time talking to them about life and about anxiety and what it was like to be a young person in an affluent, highly ambitious, competitive family. And his theory was that for the sort of students who show up at his testing center, who were mostly from highly educated families with lots of advantages and resources, the thing that was holding them back from the sort of test scores that they wanted generally was not a lack of knowledge. It was their anxiety, the pressure that they felt. 

Ned is a great student of stress psychology and stress physiology, and he understands that when students feel this pressure, when they feel like this test is a measure of their worth and their importance in the world, that kind of pressure actually makes it harder for them to concentrate and to do well. So, one of his strategies was to do this sort of jujitsu with the test and to convince students that actually the SAT wasn't such an important thing, it was this goofy little game that had little tricks that you could learn to defeat it. And those tricks actually paid off, but it was also kind of a psychological strategy to get them to stop taking the test so seriously.

Has the SAT test changed over time?

The test has changed in some ways. In the early days of the SAT, the "A" in the middle of SAT stood for aptitude, and it was based on this idea that there was this magical quality called aptitude that you either had or you didn't, you know, someone who was naturally intelligent and could take in information or you weren't. And so there was no point studying for the SAT. And then it was actually Stanley Kaplan back in the '50s, I think, who first started teaching the students taking the SAT and low and behold their scores went up, which sort of challenged the idea that aptitude might have something to do with it.

So, over the years, the College Board has retreated from that original idea that the “A” no longer stands for aptitude, and now it doesn't stand for anything. And they now acknowledge that it's possible to study for the test, but they just don't want to believe that tutors like Ned are giving their affluent students such a remarkable advantage.

How different is what the ACT measures?

In their early history, there was this big difference in that the SAT was all about aptitude, about this sort of natural intelligence, and the ACT was designed in contrast to the SAT as reflecting what students learned in high school. It was more popular in the Midwest and the SAT was more popular on the coast. Now, especially over the last decade, the SAT has gone fully onto the ACT’s turf. So, now there's much less difference between them.

Are any schools talking about eliminating standardized tests from considerations?

They are and many have. The movement is called the test-optional movement. More and more colleges, especially smaller liberal arts colleges, have chosen to go test-optional, meaning that if you're applying to that college, you can choose not to submit your test scores and the institution will just judge you on the rest of your application. 

About half of the U.S. News & World Report's Top 100 liberal arts colleges in the country are now test-optional, but more big, highly selective institutions have started to join that movement -- the biggest one being the University of Chicago. That's an institution that is not only super selective, but it's kind of always been known for its focus on hard numbers and data. And so the fact that they decided that they could continue to admit excellent academic classes each year without the benefit of the SAT and the ACT, I think was pretty significant.

Listen to Paul Tough's entire interview with Krys Boyd on KERA's Think.

Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Galilee Abdullah is an arts reporter.