New Test Prep Services Cater to Minority Students

More minority students (40 percent of all test-takers nationally) took the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 2007 than ever. Though the College Board has lauded such statistics, perhaps to distract from the discouraging two-year decline in overall scores, this group of minority students is typically less prepared for the SAT. Twenty-four percent of the group declared that English is not their first language, a statistic that has grown steadily over the years. As progressively more diverse populations begin to tackle the SAT, new programs have developed to address their unique needs.

Despite improved access to the test, primarily due to an increase in fee waivers granted by the College Board, many minority students are inadequately prepared to take the SAT or do not consider how to prepare. In the graduating class of 2007, the racial gap between test scores remained significant: an average score of 1085 for White students compared to 843 for Black students.

Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, a nonprofit organization that acts as a watchdog within the standardized test industry, says the “playing field can’t be equal because of the varying degree of preparation among students.” Many colleges that do not require the SAT as part of their application process cite their decision as a counterbalance to the unfair coaching inherent in SAT preparation. Shaeffer explains, “If coaching improves students’ scores, then the test offers different things to different students, but admissions can’t know their degree of preparation.”

Most test prep classes are out of reach for many of today’s students, both geographically and financially. Kaplan’s “Premier” SAT course, for example, costs $3,899 for 32 hours of preparation.

In the wake of such disparity, several programs are determined to narrow the gulf between scores, including a new company aptly named Revolution Prep. Co-founders Jake Neuberg and Ramit Varma operate by the guiding principle that “no student is turned away” due to inability to pay or difficulty finding transportation to class, which is why most Revolution classes are held on campus after school. A former Kaplan tutor, Neuberg now works with schools in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., improving scores by a guaranteed 200 points. Revolution also works with Advancement Via Individual Determination, an in-school academic support program attempting to “level the playing field for minority, rural, low-income, and other students without a college-going tradition.”

Neuberg notes that he is not offering a “separate but equal” course to the different schools he works with; the curriculum, materials, and teacher commitment do not vary. Neuberg recognizes, however, that the students “most in need of our scholarships are usually the least in the know.” His company does on-site outreach at a high number of schools, but he admits they could do more. “Essentially, for kids who want to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we’re providing the bootstraps,” he says. As Revolution seeks out foundational support, the goal is to reach more students and create an online community to provide accessible means of individual tutoring. More localized efforts recognize that the service they provide is in marked demand. At Clemson University, which instituted the SAT Workshop for Minority Students, there are many more students who wish to participate in the program than it can enroll. From a pool of 300 applicants this year, 100 were selected to attend the university’s intensive two-week program. Kaplan provides testing materials at a discount to the university, but Clemson funds the program itself.

Starlett Craig, director of the office of academic excellence at Clemson’s Charles H. Houston Center for the Study of the Black Experience in Education, says students “leave the program much more confident in their ability to be successful on the SAT.” She also notes the dual mission of the program: Clemson hopes to attract a more diverse student population and generate “SAT scores that will match students’ academic records.” Clemson’s program is unique in that it is the only university-funded prep course of its kind, and Craig reports that their most recent statistics show an average 150-point increase among students in the program, who also become automatically eligible for state scholarships through their participation.

At Step Up Women’s Network, located in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, senior program manager Jamie Kogan recognized a need for more than straightforward test preparation. Though her organization received testing materials from The Princeton Review, it became clear that students were continuing to struggle. So Kogan developed College Café, an informal regular meeting during which students and Step Up volunteers reviewed test questions. When Kogan felt that even in College Café certain students understood the material while others were reticent to ask questions, she began offering one-on-one tutoring. She cites “the combination of a group setting and that individual attention” have readied students who may be the first in their families to go to college and often “feel lost” preparing for an exam as intimidating as the SAT.

At Los Angeles Leadership Academy, a five-year-old charter school with a student body that is 98 percent minority (and an average of four years behind in reading upon entrance in the sixth grade), Principal Beth Bernstein says there was no viable alternative to private tutoring for her students. “They couldn’t get SAT prep if it weren’t for organizations like Step Up.”

–Tracy Chaitt

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