09/20/2013 01:53 pm ET

Can You Pay Your Way To A Better Test Score?


This article was written by teen reporters from The Mash, a weekly publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.

By Marisa Cullnan and Emily Schwartz, Walter Payton

Chances are you know someone who has paid to prepare for the ACT or SAT. Some choose to buy a book and study alone, others hire a one-on-one tutor and some students sign up for classroom-style lessons.

Many high school counselors recommend test prep for juniors, even if it’s to simply get used to the formatting and sections of the exams.

“I heard the science section is the hardest because it’s at the end of the test and is basically graph and reading comprehension,” Walter Payton junior Elliot Adams said about the ACT, “so I’m going to try to focus on that when I prep.”

Putting all academic fears aside, there’s also a time limit to deal with.

“I think I can finish every question on (the ACT), but whether or not I can do them all in time is the real question,” said Marist junior Hannah Smith.

Whether you’re terrified of a particular section or worried about running out of time, Academic Approach tutor Brandon Newton said it’s good to have a plan of attack before walking into the test.

“I think test prep is a pretty amazing resource, whether it’s one-on-one or in a class setting,” Newton said. “Pacing and timing, however, can be pretty tough to get the hang of.”

Some students get so hung up on the time limit that if one thing goes wrong the day of the test, it throws everything off -- a reason many test prep advocates use to encourage extra help.

Still, ACT Inc. argues that quick-fix test preparation methods aren’t as effective as learning the testing material through high school classwork. “It would stand to reason that long-term learning in school, rather than cramming and coaching, would be the obvious best form of test preparation for the ACT,” the company reported in a 2005 study.

But that doesn’t stop companies from promoting their prep classes and products with promises like “We’ll get you the score, guaranteed,” and “Four-point score increase guaranteed!”

Students are bombarded with test prep options, and each one comes with a different price tag. Because of the costs associated with test prep, some feel it’s unfair to students and families who can’t afford the pricier options.

“One-on-one is ideal because a tutor can help create individual strategies, look at trouble areas, and teach specific content based on those areas,” Newton explained. “A book is fine for practice questions, but the main issues for students with that are motivation, understanding what the book is suggesting and application of lessons taught.”

The obvious difference between a tutor and a book? The tutor will cost you more.

“It can be extremely expensive, like upwards of $200 an hour,” Newton revealed.

While the sticker shock keeps some students away, others have found specialized help with one-on-one attention.

“For me, reading comprehension is the hardest,” Whitney Young junior Nicole Kaplan said. “It’s also the kind of section where you need to work with a tutor to learn certain strategies for taking that section of the test, so I think meeting with an expert is going to be really beneficial.”

And while purchasing a book can be a cheaper option (Amazon sells used ACT prep books for as little as a penny), some students don’t feel as motivated to study on their own time.

“I got the book, looked at all the tests and then just kind of threw it on my desk where it remained for a good month,” Walter Payton senior Morgan Barnes said. “A few nights before the ACT I took a diagnostic and didn’t do great on math, so I practiced a bit and ended up fine. I really thought I was going to do more with the book than I actually did, but I’m definitely happy with my score so it luckily worked out in the end.”

Some argue that test prep takes away from the standardizing of standardized tests, giving some students an unfair advantage. It becomes unclear who earned their score based on aptitude and who earned it because of practice and preparation.

Walter Payton senior Alex Mine decided not to use any form of test prep when he was a junior.

“I think it puts me at a disadvantage that people who would have scored lower scored higher,” Mine said. “I think it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy that you need it. People only feel that they need to do it because other people do it. They feel like those people have an edge, so they deserve to have the edge too.”

Choosing to use test prep -- whether it’s a used book or a private tutor -- is a personal decision. Because every student learns in a different way, some methods may work and others may not.

Although there will always be a debate about the fairness of test prep, there are options for all price ranges, you just have to know how and where to find them.



20 Things Not To Worry About Before You Turn 20