Kaplan ACT Review Course: $599. Princeton Review Book: $31.99. ACT test fees: $49.50. For a test that was created, among other reasons, to “close the achievement gap across racial, ethnic, and family income groups“ the dreaded college preparatory test racks up a hefty bill nowadays, and seems to only widen the socioeconomic gap in America (act.org).
While there may be a “motivation” advantage to test prep classes, Romi Xi, junior, realizes that affordability can be a serious question. In this case, she feels that alternatives exist for people who might seek them. “Whatever test prep you’re taking just basically reiterates what they say in the book,” said Xi. “So if you actually had the patience to read the book, you’ll be fine, and review books aren’t expensive. You can get them for $10, maybe $5, online.” She may be right, as Amazon offers new copies of “The Real ACT Prep Guide,” which is actually published by ACT, for prices as low as $27.97.
At the same time, Xi found that test prep classes do have their advantages. Xi took an SAT class last summer. “I thought I could handle the SAT by myself, but my mom just signed me up,” she said. “But it was kind of helpful because it got me to do the practice stuff.” After taking the class, she was also able to raise her score around 200 or 300 points.
Anjali Shukla, senior, began taking ACT prep classes in middle school. “I definitely started taking a bunch of ACT classes [from the beginning of 6th or 7th grade], but I think that’s because that was my mom’s decision,” she said. However, in her opinion, starting the process years in advance was not particularly useful. “I feel like the test changed over time, so it was kind of a waste to take it at such a young age,” Shukla said.
After taking another ACT class her sophomore year, Shukla began studying from prep books available from such companies as Kaplan and Princeton Review as her ACT tests approached. In her experience, these books proved far more helpful than the classes, even while the classes may have cost more,
“I think that a lot of the time classes don’t help,” said Shukla. “I feel like they’re kind of made to make you think that you are doing better on the test, but if you want to just buy the book and study it yourself, I think that helps a lot because that’s actually what helped me improve my score. I just studied from the book from one test to another, and my score improved three or four points.”
Ms. Wheeler, a Hinsdale Central guidance counselor, said that the Guidance Department believes that “formal test preparation isn’t required, but some preparation is recommended.”
“Test preparation allows students to learn testing strategies and to minimize stress on test days. Some students feel preparation is necessary, especially if they feel that their results from other tests, such as EXPLORE and PLAN, do not accurately represent their grades and abilities. On the other hand, some students are naturally good test takers and don’t prepare extensively” Wheeler said.
Prep classes are not the only method used by college-bound students. Some of these students pay for private tutoring in pursuit of a desired score. According to Xi, however, this option has the potential to leave lower income students at a disadvantage.
“I think SAT prep classes aren’t helpful, but tutoring is helpful because it’s geared directly to your needs, but that’s extremely expensive,” she said. Kaplan offers tutoring for prices ranging from $1,299 to $4,799, depending on which of the specific options students may choose. At Princeton Review, private tutoring prices start at $2,760.
Despite all the money that seems to pour into the test prep industry, whether it is in the form of books, classes, or tutor payments, some students still find themselves wondering if the ACT really measures their college readiness. In July, the Washington Post reported a study performed by scholars from the University of Chicago and Stanford that found that the ACT’s math and English sections “are much more tightly correlated with college success than are Reading and Science scores,” basically discrediting much of the test. But to some students, although the test may require much preparation, it does what it is intended to do. Shukla said, “It does really test you on most of the stuff that you do need to be tested on.”
Given the importance of the ACT test in the college admissions process, some schools have tried to include test preparation and practice exams in their curriculum; however, this has not been well received by students.
David Newbart of the Chicago Sun-Times found that “intense test prep has been the norm at many Chicago public high schools determined to increase student scores.” Despite this “intense test prep,” researchers found that students’ scores did not increase. “Across the board, scores were lower in schools that emphasized more ACT prep,” said Elaine Allensworth, author of the University of Chicago report. What researchers found was that “what was important was not the frequency of the prep but actually teaching college-level skills throughout high school.”
Mrs. Wheeler, a Hinsdale Central guidance counselor, would agree. “Though test scores are important, I always stress that day to day grades and a student’s transcript is more important than their test scores.”
Yet the question remains: why do many students at Central take some kind of preparatory class? “There’s a variety of possible explanations—sometimes there’s an overemphasis on the importance of test scores, high expectations of test prep, and the test prep companies and tutors do a very good job of marketing themselves,” Wheeler said.
When it comes to a prep class versus a review book, some feel that students who take a prep class do so because they lack the motivation to study on their own and, as Hinsdale Central students, have the financial means to attend a class that other students do not. However, Wheeler clarifies this notion clearly. “In a class situation, someone is instructing students on testing strategies—the same strategies that be found in a review book. It is a matter of how the student learns best, assuming that they are able to afford a class. You can read a Physics textbook to learn Physics, or you can attend a class where someone is instructing students on the material. If a student has the motivation and skills to learn testing strategies through a book, then that will be the best method for them. If they need the discipline and learning experience of a classroom setting, that that will be the best method for them,” Wheeler said.
“90% of our students are college bound, whereas that percentage may be smaller at other schools,” Wheeler said. Because the majority of Central students are college bound, they are determined to work hard to achieve their testing potential. Students go through the preparation that is necessary to reach their goals and create a plan to do so, including a prep class, tutor, review book, or none of the above. Where test prep is concerned “to each his own.”