24 June 2016

How the new SAT could affect the tutoring industry

In my last post, I took the College Board to task for its boast that its partnership with Khan Academy has led to a 19% decrease in the use of paid prep, presumably defined as classes or tutoring, although the College Board fails to specify. Aside from the questionable basis for that statistic (exactly how was it obtained? what were the characteristics of the groups surveyed? how were the demographic changes incurred by the adoption of the SAT as a state test taken into account?), I do think it’s worth exploring the question of just how the new SAT might affect the tutoring industry.

For what it’s worth, I’ve heard from a number of tutors that their business is actually up this year, although those tutors tend to work with students for whom free, online prep is borderline irrelevant anyway.

I’m also aware that most experienced tutors are pushing their students toward the ACT for the foreseeable future. If there was indeed a drop in paid SAT preparation, it was almost certainly in some part due to students paying for ACT preparation instead. 

What interests me here, however, is the assumption that students will be the ones driving the changes.

But what if it goes the other way as well? What if it turns out that tutors don’t want to prepare students for the new SAT?

When I chose not to tutor the new test, I wondered whether I was overreacting. I even felt a bit petty. But then I talked to an SAT veteran who has run a popular tutoring centering for several decades. She informed me that when the test changed, she would be closing the center and retiring from test-prep. Another colleague, an award-winning teacher and author with an extraordinary knowledge of the old SAT, informed me that he had decided to step back from the new test as well and switch, grudgingly, to the ACT. And so another colleague, who had meticulously charted the many problems plaguing the College Board and concluded that she could not be involved with the new exam. She switched to the ACT as well. And yet another colleague, this one far from retirement age, shuttered her SAT prep business and stopped tutoring entirely. This is not just a local phenomenon either: these colleagues are located in four states in three very different regions of the country. 

A different set of colleagues I’ve talked to are nominally tutoring the new exam, but strongly guiding their students toward the ACT whenever possible. They tutor rSAT as necessary, but with misgivings — sometimes very deep misgivings. (One tutor confessed to me that she had actually started to cry when she looked at it for the first time.)

To be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone for tutoring the new test. Businesses have to accede to the needs of their clientele, and changes or not, the SAT will undoubtedly remain entrenched in areas where it has traditionally dominated. It’s certainly not reasonable to expect people to turn away business just because they think a test is poorly written. And I have no doubt that some of them are outstanding teachers who will do their utmost to ensure students walk away having learned something of value.

I do, however, wonder whether the new test will produce a longer-term shift in the type of people attracted to SAT tutoring — and whether that shift will mirror the shift already occurring in education as a whole.

Last winter, when I was interviewed as part of group of tutors for Michael Arlen Davis’s documentary The Test, Michael mentioned that one of his unexpected findings during the course of making the film was that SAT tutoring was such an interesting niche profession, one that attracted people he genuinely enjoyed talking to and bouncing ideas off of. Certainly, the group of us that he interviewed was an exceptionally loquacious one, with some very outsize personalities. We also made it pretty clear to him that we did not suffer faulty reasoning gladly!

I think it’s fair to assume that SAT tutoring has traditionally attracted so many people in that category because the test itself was interesting to tutor. Even if a lot of it felt routine after a while, there was always a particularly deviously constructed question that forced you not only to think, but to step back and admire the sheer ingeniousness of the test. (Admittedly, this was only possible if you had continuing access to released QAS exams). There were just enough curveballs to keep people on their toes, and it was always rewarding to move kids from reading and thinking on a high school-level to something much closer to an adult level. Plenty of long-time tutors stumbled into SAT prep by accident, then got sucked in. That was certainly the case for me.

With that kind of cleverness all but absent from the new exam, a huge component of what made SAT tutoring appealing has effectively been eliminated.

Students may find the test stultifying, but many of them have no choice but to take it. Tutors, on the other hand, have no such obligation. And I find it telling that given the option to walk away, some of them are choosing to do so.

I have no idea whether this is a relatively isolated situation that applies only to a limited number of people who happen to have the luxury of deciding what they want to teach, or whether it’s indicative of a larger trend. But I know that I now hear other private tutors voicing the same kinds of complaints about Common Core drivel that I only used to hear from people involved in the public school system. 

I seriously wonder whether as time goes on, fewer of the over-educated, quirky types who often make such outstanding teachers will continue to fall into SAT tutoring (at least on the verbal side). If they do somehow end up in test prep, I suspect that they will be more likely to tutor exams that have some level of adult interest. As a result, SAT students may ultimately be less likely to be taught by tutors who actually know something about English, and more likely to end up working with people who can only parrot the College Board’s empty jargon (“relevant words!” “evidence-based reading!”), if not outright abuses of language. 

One could certainly make the argument that reducing the market for expensive tutoring is an effective means to level the playing field, but looked at the other way around, the situation raises real questions about the quality of the test. After all, if people who could be earning at minimum $100/hour are jumping ship for ethical reasons rather than tutor something as theoretically innocuous as a standardized test, something might not be quite right. 

8 Responses

  1. Dan

    Erica –

    Language matters, and semantics matters a very great deal.

    Your “paid prep, presumably defined as classes or tutoring” ignores the College Board’s apparently purposeful use of the word “resources” (as in “causing a 19 percent drop in the number of students who paid for SAT prep resources”), and I’ve got lots (and lots and lots) of “SAT prep resources” that exist as hard copy, e-documents, and e-links that are neither “tutoring” nor “classes.” One of the (many. many. many, many) of them is the CB’s own official guide to the New SAT.

    Further, hard copy sales of its own guide is something that the CB could have counted to come up with its 19% drop claim, but it absolutely COULD NOT have counted and DID NOT COUNT for the last two years all of the paid students in all of the test prep classes and private tutoring sessions in all of the myriad of entities that provide those services nationwide and overseas

    As to the balance of your article, I’ll no longer engage in tutoring the math portion of the SAT.

  2. anonymous

    I, for one, have virtually walked out of SAT tutoring since March 2016. The main reason is indeed the lack of intellectual stimulation in the questions in the new tests. The second, and lesser, reason is the lack of released tests. I do not tutor ACT, but I still would advise my students to take the ACT instead of the new SAT, not because I like ACT more, but because I dislike it less. I really miss the old SAT, especially the critical reading sections.

    1. admin

      That was precisely the initial reaction of one of the colleagues I mentioned in my post. He ultimately backed down and decided to start teaching the ACT (which he ultimately found more rewarding and enjoyable than expected), but the old CR section is a hard act to follow.

  3. monica

    Opened to a random Old SAT passage, Page 710. Martha Graham. I went over this just before the last admin of the test, with a bright and motivated young woman who had an interest in theater. We discussed interesting, delicate questions—“the meeting of the eyes,” the main point of “human gestures.” It’s a beautifully written passage–two forces producing effects ..with a world of suggestibility like a penumbra; the power of the human face, Jung. And this happened regularly; the tutor and the student delving into something literary to make fine distinctions. And what have we replaced it with? Boo. Disturbing.

  4. Michelle Rotteau

    I teach in Toronto and cater to international students. My school pushed a double cohort through last year, and so those Grade 11s who would have been taking classes are finished, or have switched to ACT, so of course our SAT numbers are down. This does not mean the office isn’t filled with worried parents and stressed students, but that they are waiting to see how things shake out before paying for classes. The College Board has muddied its own water and made international students in particular wary of taking its test.

    I have taught SAT Reading and Writing since 2001, and I completely understand the desire to walk away. I am really struggling to come up with ways to teach this reading section in an engaging manner.

  5. BJ

    Business is down at my test prep center. It’s June now, and I have probably worked at most 15-20 hours since the new test was introduced, whereas with the old test I typically worked 10-12 hours A WEEK. I don’t think this new test prepares students for the rigors of university. Why am I teaching punctuation? The passages are so banal, whereas with the old test I would find something new in the passages each time I taught them because they were so nuanced and linguistically rich.

    1. admin

      Just out of curiosity, what sort of demographic have you traditionally worked with? I’ve essentially stopped getting requests for SAT tutoring, and I suspect that that’s because the types of high-scoring SAT kids TCR used to work with no longer need tutoring.

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