Alex Schwertfeger doesn't know what college she wants to attend. But the Notre Dame High School junior is convinced that the key to entry at her dream school is the SAT.
To boost her score, she attended a pricey private prep class and spent countless hours at home studying drills and completing practice tests. Before she went to bed many nights, she flipped through flashcards of the 200 most popular vocabulary words to appear on the test.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, March 04, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
SAT: An article in Saturday's California section about students taking the SAT exam quoted guidance counselor Melissa Figge incorrectly, using "then" in place of "than" and implying that she supported students taking private preparation classes. The correct quote is: "I'd rather have them take a demanding academic load and be involved in the world around them than spend hours and hours and hours in prep courses."
The Granada Hills teenager is taking the three-part, nearly four-hour exam for the first time today. But this is only the beginning; she plans to take another private prep class this spring and to take the exam at least once more later this year, maybe twice.
"It's really important. It gets you in the door" at selective universities, said Schwertfeger, who hopes to score a 2050 out of 2400 this time and 2200 next time. Such a high score "makes you stand out."
The wiry 17-year-old is among hundreds of thousands of students who, clutching graphing calculators and sharpened No. 2 pencils, are taking the SAT, a prerequisite for admission to most four-year colleges, today. More students than ever are taking the test: Nearly 1.5 million in the class of 2007 sat for it, 33% more than a decade earlier, according to the College Board, which administers the exam.
One beneficiary of this increase is the booming $527-million test-prep industry, which offers study aids ranging from $4.95 iPod downloads and $20 shower curtains that feature the top 500 SAT words to $29.99 practice books and one-on-one tutoring that can cost thousands of dollars.
Though test-prep companies refuse to disclose numbers, they acknowledge that more students than ever are taking classes, which they attribute to the population swell of the echo boom and millennial generations and to the growing emphasis on the exam.
"A generation or two ago, test prep was essentially a good night's sleep and a good breakfast," said Carina Wong, spokeswoman for Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, based in New York City. "Today, it really has become ubiquitous. Students have become much more aware of how effective and how important it is. College admissions has become so much more competitive over the past several years that students' parents are looking at every edge they possibly can get."
Encino mother Sonia Feldman enrolled her son 16-year-old Marc in a Kaplan course for that very reason.
"It's a big piece, especially for the UC schools" that don't conduct in-person interviews, she said. "Everything that you are is on paper."
At a Kaplan class Thursday evening in Encino, six high school juniors spent 2 1/2 hours preparing for today's exam, which includes reading, math and writing sections each worth 800 points. The third section, which requires students to write a timed essay, was added in March 2005.
On multiple-choice questions, instructor Debbie Campbell reminded them, they will be penalized for wrong answers, so they should guess only if they can narrow the field of potential answers.
"If we can make an elimination, what can we do? What have we earned the right to do?" she asked. "Guess!"
A new study scheduled to be published later this year shows that the classes are effective in boosting scores -- somewhat. Private classes increased scores an average of 60 points, while less specialized high school courses added 30 points, said Claudia Buchmann, coauthor of the study and associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
She said the results lead her to question the value of the SAT in college admissions.
"We believe the SAT is coachable and that if you can have $1,000 and can go buy a private class . . . your SAT score says less about the likelihood you'll do well in college and much more about your family background," she said.
College Board officials dispute this claim, saying that the test is a measure of what students have learned in high school and their ability to apply it. Their research shows a prep class leads to an average 26-point gain, while taking the SAT a second time results in an average 30-point gain.
"Simply by taking the SAT again, you're going to do, on average, better," said Laurence Bunin, general manager of the SAT.
Bunin said the SAT does what it was created to do -- level the playing field among students from myriad school settings -- but he acknowledged that students' backgrounds can affect their access to classes and the test result.
"Unfortunately, there is the fact that our education access in this country is not fair for everybody, that students in underserved areas don't get same kind of education that other kinds of students get," he said. "That is a problem. That problem shows up on all measures of educational success, including tests, including grades."