Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Is Free Test Prep Worth It?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The world of SAT test prep was thrown for a bit of a loop last year, when College Board partnered with Khan Academy to offer free SAT prep through the well-known online tutorial website.  The idea was simple; students with PSAT or SAT scores could plug in their test results, and Khan Academy would point the student to a series of test preparation exercises designed to strengthen skills in the areas where the student most needed improvement.

This kind of approach to test prep isn’t new, but offering it online, for free, was unheard of.  Still, many questions persisted, as observers wondered if students would take full advantage of the service, and if the idea of improvement through free test prep was just too good to be true.

The results of a recent study suggest that College Board and Khan may be on to something.  A study of nearly 250,000 test takers showed that those who plug a test result into Khan Academy, then complete 20 hours of online test prep, gain an average of 115 points when they take the SAT.  This is nearly twice the gain made by students who don’t use Khan; more important, the results are applicable to students regardless of GPA, race, gender, or income.

It’s easy to understand why these numbers are cause for celebration among advocates of universal access to test prep.  In the past, these kinds of gains mostly belonged to students who paid impressive sums of money to private test prep companies or tutors, and often involved students attending regularly scheduled classes they had to fit into schedules that were already full.  The Khan results suggest some students can realize strong test improvement for free, working on their own, and on their own schedule, all while learning more about the role of self-discipline in academic improvement.  That’s a win all around.

At the same time, these findings come with the usual limitations and cautions of any study.  More than one statistician has pointed out that correlation (two things that seem to be related to each other) isn’t always causation (meaning one thing doesn’t cause the other to occur).  In addition, it’s important to note that students not using Khan for test prep realized a 60 point increase when taking the SAT anyway.  Finally, 20 hours is a lot of time for a student to devote to anything, and not all students have that kind of time, or focus.

Since most of these limitations can also be applied to fee-based test prep, the Khan results are worth keeping an eye on in subsequent studies.  Meanwhile, many high schools are using Khan to form after-school test prep groups, where all that’s needed for students to get test ready is access to the computer lab.  The results also give high schools reason to find ways to offer some kind of PSAT, so students will have scores to plug into Khan and begin the process of customized test prep with time, and room, to spare.

Test scores continue to be the focus of many discussions about college readiness, with recent changes to the SAT leading a large number of colleges to become test optional in their admissions policies, and causing policy makers to wonder if testing outcomes have replaced quality learning experiences as the primary purpose of education.  As those discussions continue, the results of the Khan study offer hope to low income students looking for a chance to be taken seriously by colleges that value test scores—students who didn’t historically have access to quality test prep.  That qualifies as a game changer.

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