Is ACT and SAT Test Prep Right For Your Child?

Was that SAT or ACT prep course a life-saver, or a total waste of time?


A recent study by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors shows that small improvements in test scores can make a difference in college admissions, but it also indicates that the average gain from commercial test prep is small, about 30 points on the SAT and less than one point on the ACT.

What’s a parent to do?

College counselors at several North Shore high schools say that even in a recession parents are still paying high prices in the hope of high scores with results both rewarding and disappointing.

This depends, of course, on the student and the expectations.

Harriet Brand, director of public relations at Princeton Review, says more parents are investing in test prep not in spite ofóbut because ofóthe economy. With endowments shrinking and less scholarship money available, the competition for scholarships is fierce. And it all depends on test scores. (Princeton Review reported an 18 percent increase in test prep revenue for the first quarter of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008.)

Mixed reviews

Doris Winchester of Winnetka had mixed results. She sent two of her older children to a Northfield-based tutoring center, spending hundreds of dollars, yet the result was only a gain of a couple points on the ACT for both children. Her youngest daughter, however was tutored through Nurturing Wisdom, which serves the entire Chicago area, and the roughly $1,200 investment resulted in a four-point gain.

Many North Shore parents opt for private tutoring, which is more expensive, but they believe it yields better results. Bev Pinaire of Wilmette says private tutoring was more effective for her children than group classes: Her son met with a tutor for two 2-hour sessions, $330 each, and his ACT math and English scores improved 4 points each.

A Wilmette parent, who asked that her name not be used, sent her children, including a son with learning disabilities, to Academic Tutoring Centers in Highland Park and says the results were excellent. Her son’s ACT score improved by 6 points, and her daughter’s went from a 27 to a 29.

Getting results

Even if their kids test well, many North Shore parents still want them to have the extra help.

As far as what programs work, counselors across the North Shore agree that it depends on the kid. Jim Conroy, chair of post-high school counseling department at New Trier Township High School, says some parents swear by one service, while others say that same service failed for their kid.

Kids who are forced to go and don’t take the work seriously don’t reap the rewards. “It’s like any other classóunless you’re committed, you’re not going to get the benefits,” says Joseph Lee, post-secondary specialist in the College Career Center at Evanston Township High School.

Gloria Mueller, coordinator of college counseling at Glenbrook South High School, says that test prep makes sense particularly for students who are test-shy, as it helps them build confidence.

Grades versus test scores

The counselors urge parents to keep an eye on the big picture and warn them against signing their kids up for test prep if it will hurt their grades, which are far more important. When given a choice between test scores and grades, 99 percent of colleges say “show me those grades,” Conroy says.

“You have a to have a balance,” Mueller says. “Some families make [testing] their whole focus. It’s not what’s really important. What colleges are looking for is what kids have done over four years, not four hours.”

Think testing is just a big game? You can avoid the whole problem by encouraging your kids to apply to schools that don’t require test scores at all.

Looking for some test prep or tutoring for your kid? Check out our resource page.


Worried about the prices? Check out “Is ACT and SAT Test Prep With the Big Bucks?” 

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