The best example of questions that appear on the SAT but nowhere in a normal high school curriculum are the math questions that ask students to identify an algebraic expression rather than find an answer. In math classes, students typically simplify algebraic expressions in order to solve for x. But on several questions on the SAT the correct answer is not a number but an expression like 3x-27w. “Even very good math students,” Stewart pointed out, “often don’t know how to approach these questions because they have never seen them before.”
Coleman and his surrogates like to describe test-prep as gaming the test. But Katzman, who is now the CEO of Noodle, argued that what Coleman refers to as tricks are in fact sensible responses to the way the test is written. Deborah Ellinger, CEO of the Princeton Review, also argues that test prep is “not about gaming at all. Like anything you want to do well, we believe it’s about practice, strategy, understanding the test in full, taking tests in real time conditions and creating confidence in each of our students well before test day.” Similarly, Arun Alagappan, President of Advantage Testing, insists that SAT test prep provides “an opportunity to impart core academic principles and sound study habits” and “affirms the foundational relationship between effort and academic achievement.”
There truth is that there are no tricks to the SAT, or at least none that will make a significant change to a student’s score. Test prep raises scores by reviewing only the content students need to know for the exam, teaching them techniques they have not learned in school, and assigning students hundreds if not thousands of practice questions. It is this work, and not tricks, that overcome test anxiety. As Ed Carroll, a former colleague of mine, puts it, “Competence breeds confidence.”
No one in test prep believes, as Khan Academy founder Sal Khan suggests in a video chat with Coleman, that you can raise your SAT score by following the mantra, “When in doubt, guess C.” It is a shame that Coleman and Khan have to create a straw man in order to justify their completely noble endeavor to provide free test prep online.
The representatives of test prep companies I spoke with were unanimous in their praise of College Board’s partnering with Khan Academy. Alagappan said, “We fully support the College Board’s decision to partner with Khan Academy to deliver free preparation resources.” What is notable from a historical perspective about this partnership is that, after decades of disputing test prep’s effectiveness, College Board has reversed its position, which Ellinger noted could actually be a boon for the business. “The free resources supplied by Sal Kahn (a former Princeton Review teacher), may actually expand the market now that students know that test prep works and is necessary for them to perform best on the SAT.”
The main reason test prep isn’t going anywhere is that, as long as a superficial, high stakes test remains an important aspect of competitive college admissions, there will be no shortage of people looking for some advantage. Admissions anxiety is not fomented by test prep companies. They do not need to make students and parent anxious. The SAT has taken care of that for them.