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The New York Times

The Multiple Choices of Prepping for the SAT
By COELI CARR Published: October 3, 2004

The New York TimesANN STECKMEYER of Bethesda, Md., remembers vividly the night last spring when her son, Joe, then a high school junior, went online to learn his SAT scores. "There was this blood-curdling scream," she said, that propelled her and her husband upstairs to see the numbers.

Numbers mean a lot to Ms. Steckmeyer, an accountant and partner at Kaiser, Scherer & Schlegel in McLean, Va. And her son's increase in score - from the equivalent of a 1,080 on his first PSAT, to a 1,300 on his second one, to that scream-eliciting 1,410 on his initial SAT - gave him an excellent shot, she said, at some of the top colleges to which he had applied. (The highest possible score is 1,600.)

"Ned said Joe was going to get 1,400," Ms. Steckmeyer said, referring to Ned Johnson, her son's tutor and the founder and owner of PrepMatters, a company in Bethesda that offers one-on-one help in test preparation. "The key, absolutely, was Ned taking a true interest, believing there was potential and figuring out what happened to Joe when he took a test."

Many parents are finding their children's entry into the junior year to be an increasingly nerve-racking rite of passage. That is when parents are confronted with the cold reality of the SAT reasoning test and its power over their children's future.

Much of this apprehension is well founded. More students are applying to colleges, and these applicants - better prepared for the SAT than those in the past - are achieving higher scores. In the last decade, the number of students taking the SAT has increased 35 percent, said Brian O'Reilly, executive director of information services for the College Board, the owner of the SAT.

Not surprisingly, plenty of people are in the business of helping students achieve higher scores, from tutors to companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review, which are best known for classroom test-prep courses but have had significant revenue growth from their one-on-one tutoring packages over the past year. Evaluating the scope and potential effectiveness of these offerings, however, is daunting.

"I think it's very easy for a parent to misunderstand or misdiagnose why their kid is not testing well," said Mr. Johnson, 34, whose personal hourly rate is now $250 and whose services are booked through 2006. (His company employs four full-time and 16 part-time tutors, at $150 an hour.) "The key is to figure out how or why that student is underperforming."

Mr. Johnson says that the SAT has consistent patterns and that "the people who make up these tests take core information and try to construct questions that play games with that."

The test-taker, as well, has ingrained habits when answering questions, he said, and "until students are aware of the patterns of the test and the patterns of themselves, they're not going to perform their best."

If parents want test-preparation help for their children, should they go the one-on-one route or opt for group classes? Often, parents start shopping so late that the only possibility is to have their child spend a few hours with a tutor.

Kelly Tanabe, who, with her husband, Gen, runs SuperCollege, a tutoring business in Los Altos, Calif., says the worst mistake parents make is to view tutoring as merely a brush-up - and to underestimate the time it takes to prepare for a test.

"It's my responsibility to set realistic expectations," said Ms. Tanabe, "I tell parents: 'We can prepare for a test, but two months is not enough time. We can make some improvement, but you can't expect a miracle to come out of this.' "

Lisa Jacobson, chief executive of Inspirica, a 150-tutor company in New York that specializes in one-on-one test preparation and tutoring, says she has also had to deal with misconceptions about SAT preparation - like the idea that all students will be able to meet the standards of the school of their dreams. "Parents open a college guide, see the median SAT score is 1,350 and say, 'My kid's got to get a 1,300,' " said Ms. Jacobson, whose company's hourly rates run from $200 to $400. "And we say, 'Where's your child starting?' It totally matters. If he's starting at 1,000, he's not going to get there. Parents often think once they hire the company, it's done."

Ms. Jacobson said parents with high expectations often did not realize the complexity of the process. "We're the first reality check," she said.

And parents should not shop for a tutor based solely on the number of hours in a one-on-one package. "It's really about how the teacher is able to convey the material," said Robert Shaw, a partner in IvySuccess, an individual tutoring and admissions strategy company in Garden City, N.Y. Mr. Shaw's company requires instructors to be Ivy League graduates with SAT scores of 1,500 or higher and at least three years of teaching experience.

Students feel the pressure, too, whether or not they are receiving help with test preparation. "Once they see their peers either getting tutoring or raising their scores as a result of tutoring, they're like, 'These are the guys I'm competing against,' ".

Some schools are trying to level the playing field by offering tutoring to all students. Little Red School House and Elizabeth Irwin High School, a private school in Manhattan, runs a six-week, 12-session SAT-prep course, through Kaplan, for its juniors. "We don't teach to the various tests, but, as we saw more people doing this, we said, 'This is not right for some kids to get this and other kids not to,' " said Tony Fisher, the principal of the high school. "We did this less for curricular reasons and much more for philosophical equity reasons."

Despite a climate that pressures parents to seek test preparation services, there are still plenty of opportunities for those who want to prepare for the SAT on their own or cannot afford private or even classroom coaching.

Based on his research with students in 2003, Edward B. Fiske, co-author of "The Fiske New SAT Insiders Guide" (Sourcebooks), says the most useful way to prepare for the SAT is to take previously administered tests for practice. "Do it under timed conditions, simulate the real testing conditions, analyze what you do wrong and then work on that," he advised. "You're going to learn your test-taking style."

Old tests can be found in "10 Real SAT's," published by the College Board. (The Educational Testing Service writes the test.) In anticipation of a new SAT with an essay portion that will be given for the first time in March, the College Board is selling "The Official SAT Study Guide: For the New SAT"; it costs $19.95 and includes tests modeled on the new format. This month, the organization will offer "The Official SAT Online Course" for $69.95. But not all parents can manage to find a stopwatch and a few hours in which to proctor their test-practicing children, which is why the idea of giving the task to professionals is so appealing.

"The climate of fear that has created so many anxious parents and students is very, very good for the test prep business and, I'm assuming now, the one-on-one tutoring business," said Joshua Aronson, associate professor of applied psychology at New York University. Mr. Aronson advises parents to get a handle on whether their child is smart but doesn't test well, or is academically weak to the extent that no amount of instruction will help secure a place at Harvard.

"It's awfully important to know the category before you lay your money down," he said. Discovering a child's real talents would be even better, he added. "Your mission as a parent is to say not 'How smart is my kid?' but 'How is my kid smart?' " he said. "You focus in on that and then, wherever the kid goes to college, he'll know, 'This is what I'm good at.' "