ACT/SAT Prep Course: Leveling the Playing Field for an Unfair Game

Eleanor Pontikes This year, the college counseling office spearheaded the induction of an elective ACT/SAT prep course for Juniors. The teacher of the course, Lauren Wetherbee, is a former Academic Approach tutor and founder of a new tech company for test preparation called Mindletica. Ms. Wetherbee, a lover of standardized tests who used to teach test prep as a volunteer in high school, seems like the perfect person for the role! Her ultimate goal is to make test prep more equitable, affordable, and accessible for everyone. Fortunately, Latin shares these same goals, and the course is now off and running. As a student in the new course, I’ve had the opportunity to meet Ms. Wetherbee and hear what she has to says about her vision for the class and her stance on college entrance exams in general. What is your goal for this course? To get everyone to their target score (ideally) and also to make them realize that these tests aren’t nearly as terrifying as they seem.  There is a lot of (unnecessary) panic surrounding having to take college entrance exams, often propagated by people that make money off of panicking people about these tests.  Once students can see that the questions largely boil down to logic-based thinking and what they mostly already know, they see that the questions are relatively manageable.   How do you plan on achieving this goal? I set on kind of a three-tiered approach.  Phase 1:  starting all my classes as one big group so that I can get to know them individually and review the overall strategies that are useful to everyone, regardless of what level they are scoring at (timing/pacing, concepts tested, most common traps/incorrect answers, etc).  Phase 2:  Once I have a sense for student-specific strengths/weaknesses, I can break them up into smaller groups, allowing them to work on only what is critical to their success.  Phase 3:  More 1-on-1 time with me.  I really do think that there is benefit in personal tutoring, but not until students have learned what they can as a group together.  I encourage my students to set up individual meetings with me for anything they simply aren’t getting from the class at large and I see this being increasingly important as the program progresses. What are your thoughts on Latin offering this course? Should every school offer it?  I think it’s game-changing.  There is already a huge divide in who can afford a great education and who cannot.  Latin has made amazing strides in making education more equitable and bringing test prep in-house is just another example of these efforts.  Yes, I think more schools should offer it.  College is becoming increasingly competitive and it seems like everyone does some form of prep these days.  Offering it as part of a school’s curriculum allows everyone to get at least some assistance in preparing for a college entrance exam. Do you think Latin offering this course says something about its values? Does it even the playing field for students who can’t afford programs like Academic Approach? Absolutely.  Being able to afford individual tutoring is just not an option for many. Honestly, it’s expensive no matter how much disposable income a person might have.  And much of what I teach a student starting with a really high score is similar to what I teach a student starting with a low score.  There are many things related to these tests that everyone needs to know, so why not do that in a one (teacher) to many (students) approach?  Saying that someone needs to spend a small fortune on test prep is great for business, but generally unnecessary from a student perspective.  Not to say there isn’t value in having 1-on-1 help every once in awhile.  I make office hours available so that anyone can access me for individual help. Do you think the ACT/SAT is an accurate representation of a student in the college application process? Yes and no.  There is a lot of controversy surrounding these tests and often for good reason.  Getting a perfect score certainly doesn’t mean you’re a genius and getting a low score certainly doesn’t mean you’re an idiot.  I’ve met many intelligent adults and students that just cannot perform well on standardized tests.  I believe much of the controversy stems primarily from people asking these tests to do more than they are designed to do.  They are designed to be an indicator of college readiness.  For instance, the Reading section on both the SAT and ACT is testing whether or not you can read.  It’s hard to argue that critical reading skills aren’t necessary for college. That said, there’s a reason that colleges don’t only ask for your SAT/ACT score.  They realize that there are many other factors that go into making a student successful at their specific school.  Having an entire college filled with people just based on one metric would make for a pretty dull college culture.    After working in this industry for some time, I’ve seen that there is a very lucrative test prep industry built around making people panic about what these scores ultimately mean.  Your score doesn’t define you as a person and it certainly isn’t going to crush any of your future dreams if you can’t get a perfect score!    Do you think that students should study for these tests? If so, when should they start studying and how? What students need to realize, more than anything, is that they’ve technically been studying for these tests their whole life!  Much of the material on these tests measures concepts a student might have learned back in middle school. It’s rare that students don’t need to brush up on old concepts or learn pacing strategies for the specific test.  A student might learn 150 math concepts through middle-school and high-school.  The SAT/ACT measures at most 25 of those concepts!  Similarly, the English/Grammar section measures . . . grammar.  Most students are done with grammar as a class in 8th grade.  It’s mostly locating what you already know, drawing a circle around that specific material and making sure you can answer questions related to it on one of these tests.  Part of my prep with students is just making them realize this:  that the test isn’t measuring how well you know Dickens, Calculus or Physics and it never will.  Knowing what’s on the test and learning timing/pacing strategies is most of the battle. Honestly, students know most, if not all, of what’s on a standardized test already. And you don’t need to spend $5,000 to be made aware of that simple fact. After hearing Ms. Wetherbee’s insights, I have a completely new perspective on standardized testing and the college process as a whole. Although taking practice ACT/SAT tests and re-learning comma rules may not be appealing to all, as Latin students, we are fortunate enough to have a school which not only expects excellence, but provides the necessary tools for all to achieve them.  ]]>