The College Admissions Game, Part 6: Admissions Test Preparation

Test preparation courses for college admissions tests are fairly common in Silicon Valley.  Test preparation courses for high school admissions tests, amazingly enough, are also common.  The Daughter and Number One Son each took them in preparing for their respective college and high school admissions tests.  Their experiences with test preparation courses raises, at least in my mind, a lot of questions about the purpose and fairness of much of today’s standardized testing.

Like many of her classmates, the Daughter took an SAT test prep course.   The course was not a standard commercial test prep offering, but was a special session organized by the parents of some of her classmates.  I was surprised – parents do that?  So over the course of a number of Saturdays, the Daughter went a local school to SAT study sessions.  Our admissions consultant said that SAT or ACT scores were important for reasons other than admissions as they were often used as consideration for merit scholarships.

For kids applying to Silicon Valley private high schools, there can be a number of admissions oriented tests to consider.  Some schools accept the Educational Record Bureaus Comprehensive Testing Program, the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE), or Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT).  For Number One Son, the key exam to prepare for was the High School Placement Test (HSPT), used by local Catholic High Schools.  Tests results are critical to admissions.  The Daughter told me about one of her middle school classmates who was an excellent athlete and had good grades but choked on his HSPT tests and didn’t get into his first choice.  The high schools themselves make test taking even stranger.  Some of them will not consider a candidate seriously for admission unless that child takes the test at their school.  I never really understood the point of that.

Test preparation has become so engrained with kids applying to local Silicon Valley Catholic high schools that my kids’ middle school once arranged test prep sessions after school at the school.  The school doesn’t do that now as people simply sign up for test prep classes at the times most convenient for them.  We had the choice doing a number of Saturdays or the time between Christmas and New Years.  Since the testing takes place in January, we had Number One Son take the test prep between Christmas and New Years Day, as to have the material as fresh as possible.

Did test prep courses help?  For the Daughter, it did not help that much, as measured by SAT results before and after.  I think that in her case, she needed a longer test prep session, but she did manage to get a number of merit scholarships.  Number One Son says that his test preparation was extremely helpful.  He adds that a number of the questions covered actually were on the test.   When she was applying to high schools, the Daughter also took HSPT prep courses, but she felt that it wasn’t  helpful.  For the SAT, the College Board claims that test prep only helps as much as taking the test a second time while other studies show that coaching can be effective.

(Data Source: College Board)

Are test preparation courses fair?  They are part of the whole game, another escalation in the admissions arms race as everyone is trying to gain an advantage.   With test scores as an admissions requirement, test preparation courses can offer an advantage for those who can afford it.   A criticism of the SAT is that it correlates strongly to the test takers family income (see above graph).   As one admissions officer mentioned, a growing number of colleges are becoming part of the test optional movement.

I have mixed feelings about test preparation and standardized testing.   The Daughter and Number One Son think that the reason that he benefited from HSPT prep courses and she didn’t is that he took it a week before the test in January and she took it the summer before.  Is the HSPT measuring how recently a student took the test prep course? I  definitely wouldn’t like a one test for college approach like in China or South Korea, but I do worry how subjective admissions criteria can be used and have been used in the past.  In the end, whether I like it or not, standardized tests will be part of the admissions process, so Number One Son and Number Two Son will be taking test preparation courses.

Tune in for Part 7:  Applications.


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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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