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Scoring SAT Tutors

Exam: How much prep work is necessary before taking the college assessment test? While most outfits focus on test-taking skills, a Laguna Beach firm ups the ante with a five-year, $2,500 course--beginning in the 7th grade.


In the elite students' race for admission to top colleges, classes that prep would-be collegians to take the Scholastic Assessment Test at a cost of $250 and up have become the norm.

But one tutoring outfit based in Laguna Beach takes the pursuit of the mighty 1600--a perfect score on both verbal and math--much further. Cambridge Academic Services offers parents what is loftily called the Cambridge SAT Colloquium, a biweekly night class for kids starting in the seventh grade, five years before most students take the test.

Founder Lisa Muehle said her philosophy for the colloquium sprang up in reaction to the glut of SAT crash courses that encourage students to cram just weeks, sometimes days, before the test.

"Even if you wait until the 11th grade, you'll feel a lot of pressure," she said. "The early bird does get the worm."

Unlike most SAT preps that focus on test-taking skills, the Colloquium actually teaches to the test with years of classes that tutor students in the kinds of vocabulary and math questions that commonly crop up on the standardized exam.

At a cost of close to $500 a year, for five years--yes, that's $2,500 for SAT prep training--the tutorial starkly illustrates how prepping for top scores has a lot to do with the money that parents are prepared to shell out.

And money alone isn't enough. To be accepted to the program, students must have a minimum 3.2 GPA, be GATE-identified or recommended for enrollment by a teacher.

Whether the 6-year-old program actually works after all those requirements is an unanswered question. Muehle said she has no statistics on the average score of students who have gone through the Colloquium.

Having seventh-graders study for a test they will take their senior year of high school is rare if not unique, said Charles Rooney, assistant director of FairTest, a nonprofit organization in Cambridge, Mass., that advocates eliminating the SAT's role in college admissions. He calls the early prep "ridiculous" though understandable.

"As long as these tests serve as gatekeepers, it's a rational response to do as much as you can to get through that gate," he said.

His looming concern is that devoting such enormous time and resources to the "narrow and limited" arena of test-taking is killing kids' critical-thinking abilities as well as crushing their spirits. Not to mention the cost.

"Test prep is very unevenly distributed," Rooney said. "It's only available to families who can afford it."

Muehle said the Colloquium isn't about emptying the pockets of nervous parents, but slowly marinating students' brains in actual information--new vocabulary and math lessons.

"Anyone who gets a 1500 at the end of 10th grade can stop studying," Muehle said. "I'm not going to take their money for another year. Although they probably could have a 1580 after another year with us."

Since the program began in 1992, it has attracted hundreds of students from up to 20 miles away. Parents have called from around the country to find out more, Muehle said.

The Colloquium classes are small, between eight and 12 students, and spread out over a year's time; the seventh-graders come once a week and higher grades come biweekly for a 90-minute session.

"We're here for the long haul," Muehle said. "We're not just here to take a check for some six-week program."

With her 14-year-old daughter dreaming of going to Harvard, Yale or Stanford, Sue Hall of Laguna Beach decided to enroll her in the Colloquium classes last year.

"The classes don't make her feel crazy," Hall said. "She doesn't feel pressured by it."

Some students take the class for just a year, but Muehle has had a handful of students who have taken the Colloquium for the full five years, a commitment she encourages.

"You can't just waltz into Berkeley or UCLA with a mediocre SAT score," she said.

Statistics from the University of California bear her out. In the fall of 1997, UC Berkeley accepted only 42% of non-engineering applicants who had a 4.0 grade-point average and a combined SAT score of 1200 to 1390. Among students with the same GPA but a combined SAT of 1400 to 1600, the percentage accepted jumped to 75.

Some owners of the more quick-hit SAT prep classes say that any outfit encouraging years of SAT study smells like a scam.

"Some students need to be pressured," said Cobert Kim, owner of Alpha Academy, an Orange County SAT prep company with offices in Fullerton and Yorba Linda. "There are a lot of students who are very lazy."

Kim requires a 3.0 grade-point average and offers a monthly rate of $300 for 30 hours of class. He said that many of his clients take about three months of prep work--for a total cost of $900--before they either drop out or plunge into the test-taking.

"I say get the studying over with," he said. "The sooner the better."

Muehle credits her competitors with offering valid classes, but sticks to her long-term study philosophy. And her roster boasts some test-savvy clientele, including one student who did pull off a perfect SAT score.

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