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SAT test prep tools give advantage to students from wealthier families

Students from higher-income families are the ones most likely to use SAT preparation tools such as classes and tutors, which gives them an advantage in getting into college, a new study suggests.

Results from a nationwide study showed that students who took private SAT prep classes averaged scores 60 points higher on their SAT tests compared to those who didn't take those classes. As a result, they were more likely to get into college, and into more selective colleges.

“SAT prep tools have become a tool of advantaged families to ensure that their children stay ahead in the competition for college admissions,” said Claudia Buchmann, co-author of the study and associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

Buchmann conducted the study with Vincent Roscigno, professor of sociology at Ohio State, and Dennis Condron of Emory University. They presented their results Aug. 14 in Montreal at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

The researchers examined data from the National Education Longitudinal Study, which has followed students from around the country since they were eighth-graders in the spring of 1988. They were interviewed regularly over the next 12 years. This study uses data from about 10,000 of those students.

Most colleges and universities use the SAT, a standardized test, as one of the primary factors in the selection process for students. Because of the importance of the test for college admission, a wide variety of test preparation services are offered to high school students. This study examined which students were most likely to use four types of these services: private classes, such as those offered for a fee by Princeton Review and Kaplan; special high school classes; private tutors; and test books, software programs or videos.

Slightly more than half of the students in this study reported using test prep books. But books were also the least effective method of preparing for the test, and had no significant beneficial effects on SAT scores, Buchmann said.

About 18 percent took a high school class on SAT prep, 11 percent took a private class, and 7 percent had a private tutor.

Private classes were the most effective form of test preparation, and students who took them had an average increase in SAT score of 60 points.

But these classes are also very expensive, Buchmann said. The best-known national companies offering SAT prep courses, Princeton Review and Kaplan, charge more than $800 for their classes.

Results showed that students from less-advantaged families – those with lower family incomes, and with parents who have less education and lower-level jobs -- were less likely to use any form of test preparation. But the findings were particularly strong for the two types of preparation that did the most to boost scores -- private classes and tutoring. “That's not surprising given the substantial expense for most test preparation classes and tutoring,” Buchmann said.

The finding that poorer students were significantly less likely to use test prep held true even though the researchers took into account other factors that may have affected the use of these services, such as family educational expectations, previous academic achievement, number of siblings, and whether the students lived in a one-parent household.

“The findings clearly show that children from advantaged families are the ones who are getting the best SAT test preparation, the kind that pays off with significantly higher scores,” Buchmann said.

Results from the study also showed that higher SAT scores were linked to higher rates of college enrollment, and particularly higher levels of enrollment in the more highly selective colleges.

Buchmann said access to test preparation and higher SAT scores are not the only reasons that children from advantaged families are more likely to enroll in college, and get accepted to better colleges. But SAT prep does play an important role.

“The SAT test was supposed to level the playing field, and allow people from all social classes to have equal access to college,” Buchmann said. “But this study shows that students from advantaged families still have better opportunities to reach college, and access to test preparation tools is one reason.”

Claudia Buchmann | EurekAlert!
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