25 February 2015

The Critical Reader on MarketWatch: test prep on a budget ( more tutoring isn’t always better)

A couple of weeks ago, MarketWatch reporter Charles Passy contacted me about the process of doing SAT/ACT prep on a budget, and we had an impromptu and delightful conversation about the test-prep process and the changes it’s undergone over the last couple of decades. While I’m thrilled to see this site mentioned in his article as a source of free test prep, I also realize there wasn’t room for him to include much of what we discussed.

Hence this post.

(For the record, I know I’ve been away for a while, but I finally got started on trying to revise my SAT grammar book for the new test in 2016, and, well, let’s just say it’s been eating up a lot of my time…)

Anyway, my conversation with Mr. Passy certainly wasn’t the first one I’ve had about low-budge test prep, but during and after our conversation, a couple of things occurred to me. An awful lot of fuss gets made about the correlation between test scores and socio-economic status, and while I am in absolutely no way denying the very real and stark macro-level educational disparities that correlation reflects, I also think there are some nuances that often get missed. (I know, nuances get missed in the sound-bite/twitter-ized popular media — how difficult to imagine!)

The usual media story goes something like this: you hire a high-priced tutor, pay them some ungodly sum, the tutor teaches the kid some “tricks,” and wham! the kid’s score goes up a couple of hundred points.

That makes for a convenient narrative, but the truth is a little more complicated.

Now, to be fair, tutoring does occasionally work like that, but usually only for kids who were scoring pretty well in the first place. They just needed to hear someone say one or two things that would make it all click into place. They didn’t need help learning to identify prepositional phrases or main ideas, and they certainly didn’t stumble over the pronunciation of common words. Some of them could have ultimately have figured things out even without a tutor.

For all those kids who improve by huge amounts, there are others who dutifully go to tutoring week in and week out, sometimes for months on end, and come out barely better (or worse) than they were at the start — even with a very competent tutor, a category that I would like to think includes moi.

“More tutoring is always better, right?” a parent wrote to me in an email recently, nervous about what she could afford. Well, no actually. Sometimes more is not better. Sometimes more is worse. Sometimes more backfires, and the kid just wants to be left alone. Sometimes the kid doesn’t really make that much of an effort. Sometimes the kid has so many holes in their foundational knowledge that they can’t get to a point where they can integrate and apply new knowledge under pressure, on the fly. It all depends on where the student is starting from, where they want to get to, and how much they’re willing to put in. And so on.

When it comes to standardized test scores and income, people tend to assume that the correlation is invariably linear, up to the highest levels: that is, a student from a family earning $250,000/year will automatically score better than a student from a family scoring $100,000/year, who will in turn always score better than a student from a family earning $75,000/year, and so on. Reasonably, they therefore assume that a student from a family earning, say $5 million/year is pretty much guaranteed to reach the highest echelons of SAT or ACT score-dom, and one from a family at the tip-top of the 1% is pretty much guaranteed a perfect score.

Interestingly, this is the exact opposite of my personal experience.

Almost all of my weakest students have come from the most well-off families. And by “well off,” I mean Upper East Side townhouse/penthouse/house in the Hamptons wealthy. Some of them had been tutored in every subject, for years. Not coincidentally, they tended to have a lot of gadgets but not many books. Often their vocabularies were staggeringly weak. Staggeringly. As in, you would probably not believe me if I told you the words they didn’t know. They were so used to being spoon-fed that they simply did not know how to figure things out on their own, and there were no real stakes for them. They’d continue to be equally privileged whether they attended Muhlenberg or NYU.

My relatively strong students have tended to be from well-off but not extraordinarily wealthy families. They had houses and nice things and vacations, but they also had some exposure to the world of ideas. Often they were willing to put in a moderate amount of work, but they lacked a realistic conception of effort relative to payoff.

My strongest students have been from from families that truly valued learning. Regardless of how much money they had, they were willing to spend on education (though granted none of them could be called poor). A number of them were from immigrant families, and some did not learn English until relatively late. But they were willing to accept that they didn’t know everything already, and they worked hard.

Then there are the kids who can’t afford tutoring at all — or who don’t want their parents to shell out for tutors — who simply buy my books, sit down with them diligently for a couple of months, and get perfect or near-perfect scores. I know they exist because they sometimes send me emails thanking me. Those emails make my day.

These kids are the ones that gets overlooked in all the discussions about scores and socio-economic status. Some of them do spend hours combing this site and PWN the SAT and Erik the Red and College Confidential tracking down the answer to every last Blue Book question and pull their scores into the stratosphere. Yes, they are comparatively few, but they exist, and sometimes they actually learn a lot in the process.

Don’t their accomplishments deserve some recognition too?

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