May 08, 2014

Who Will Benefit Most from the SAT’s Proposed Makeover?

Lahn Nguyen, left, sent her daughter, Hong Bui, to Berkeley Academy in Austin to prepare for the SAT. Berkeley Academy and other private test prep centers are not concerned about losing revenues from the College Board's recent SAT changes.

Lahn Nguyen, left, sent her daughter, Hong Bui, to Berkeley2 Academy in Austin to prepare for the SAT. Berkeley2 Academy and other private test prep centers are not concerned about losing revenues from the College Board’s recent SAT changes. Photo by Natalie Krebs.






By Joseph Baucum
For Reporting Texas

Hong Bui has no doubts about the role BerkeleyAcademy, a private test prep center on Anderson Mill Road in Austin, played in her winning acceptance to Yale University in the fall. Bui, a senior at John B. Connally High School in Austin, says the coaching she received for the SAT college entrance exam was crucial to achieving her score of 2,270 out of a possible 2,400. Bui believes her success on the SAT, a key component many universities use to judge applicants, validates the $2,950 her mother paid for her 10-week course.

“There were other people that were … striving for the same thing I was, so coming to an environment that was very motivating helped me,” said Bui, who won a full four-year scholarship from Yale. She believes the help she got from Berkeley2 improved her SAT score by 500 points.

Now the College Board, publishers of the SAT, has promised to reduce such advantages. In March, President David Coleman announced plans for the organization to partner with the education nonprofit Khan Academy to offer free online preparation materials to anyone as of  spring 2015 to mitigate the edge that comes from enrolling at pricey test-prep centers.

College Board and Khan Academy officials have touted the forthcoming study materials as comparable to private SAT coaching and a means to make the exam a more equitable measurement of college readiness. Yet directors of third-party test centers and education advocates disagree, asserting that the private SAT prep industry will continue to thrive.

Some critics go further, arguing that the Khan Academy partnership has more to do with the College Board’s battle for market share with its industry rival, ACT, than its altruism. If they’re right, the SAT will remain as much an indicator of who can afford the best preparation course as a predictor of educational aptitude. In Texas, that could place an even higher premium on private SAT preparation in order for students to to stay competitive with other college applicants from across the United States. With a median score of 1,437, Texas ranks 43rd among the states in SAT performance. The national median score is 1,498.

There is a correlation  between family income and SAT performance at the state and national level. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Asians have the highest median household income, followed by non-Hispanic Caucasians. Hispanics make slightly more than African Americans, but both groups fall below the national median for family income. That order, based on ethnicity, is the same for 2013 SAT results in Texas and the United States.

2013 Texas SAT results by ethnicity Median score Test-takers
Asians 1,631 11,838
Non-Hispanic Caucasians 1,568 67,080
Hispanics 1,359 63,313
African Americans 1,267 24,013


2013 National SAT results by ethnicity Median score Test-takers
Asians 1,645 196,030
Non-Hispanic Caucasians 1,576 834,933
Hispanics 1,354 284,261
African Americans 1,278 210,151


One sign that the trend could continue is that test center directors don’t believe their revenues will be affected by the College Board’s partnership with Khan Academy. Emily Hong, director of college admissions consulting at Berkeley2 Academy, says her lack of concern stems from the fact that free online prep materials are already available. BerkeleyAcademy has a test center in Austin and one in West Lake Hills.

“Students can just Google something and there will be a whole bunch of SAT prep questions and test booklets out there,” Hong said. “I don’t think partnering up with Khan Academy and providing these new services is going to drastically change anything.”

Hong is correct about the free resources. Khan Academy already provides online materials for SAT preparation at no charge. Other sites such as and offer similar services.

Edward Kim, director of curriculum at C2 Education, believes that as long as the options are either studying alone or receiving specialized attention from a professional tutor, private prep centers will always have the edge over online study sites. C2 Education has 110 SAT academies nationwide. Some of their courses can cost nearly $4,000.

“Khan Academy is a good resource,” said Kim. “It’s always been free, but it depends a lot on the students being self-motivated enough to use these resources for their own benefit.”

The new materials from the College Board and Khan Academy promise to provide “sophisticated, interactive software that gives students deep practice and helps them diagnose their gaps,” according to a recent College Board press release. Until the material is available, students can find questions from past SAT exams and explanatory videos on Khan Academy’s website.

The demographics of the clientele at both Berkeleyand C2 Education align with U.S. Census data on family income and SAT performance. Hong says 60 to 70 percent of the customers at Berkeleyare from East and Southeast Asian backgrounds. Similarly, C2 Education’s Kim says that because of the high fees, most of his company’s clients are Asians and non-Hispanic Caucasians with a small percentage of Hispanic and African American students.

Hong estimates that BerkeleyAcademy’s program improves a student’s score, on average, by about 400 points. Kim says his company varies from 300 to 450 points based on the course a student chooses.

Khan Academy officials declined to comment when contacted by Reporting Texas, but College Board spokeswoman Katherine Levin disagrees with the SAT prep center directors about the impact of the promised study guides. She says there is more to them than critics believe, and that judgment on the efficacy of the future SAT materials should wait.

“As part of this partnership, we will train tutors, counselors, mentors and others to help students take full advantage of these resources,” Levin said. “The high-priced, third-party test prep that has come before is not a useful comparison.”

Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a national education advocacy group, has a different take. In an April press release, Schaeffer said the SAT changes have more to do with the College Board’s need to hold its own in the multimillion-dollar college entrance exam market against the increasingly popular ACT. Nearly 1.8 million graduating seniors took the ACT in 2013, almost 140,000 more than took the SAT.

Schaffer contends that many of the changes set to take effect in the SAT exam in 2016 mirror ACT procedures already in place. ACT education and career solutions President Jon Erickson agrees. For example, the essay section will no longer be compulsory, penalties for incorrect answers will be abolished, and words familiar to high school students will replace the obscure test rhetoric that is currently used. Scoring will revert to a 1,600-point scale, with the essay scored separately.

“It’s a marketing claim,” said Schaeffer of the College Board’s announcements in an interview with Reporting Texas.

The most recent publicly available IRS Form 990 filed by the College Board shows it had revenues of $759 million for the tax year ending in June 2012. That compares to $302.6 million for ACT. Both organizations offer employment testing and other services, in the U.S. and other countries, as well as college entrance and graduate school admissions test preparation.

The College Board’s Levin maintains that the primary intent behind the SAT changes is to propel students to academic success. She notes that other plans by the College Board, including offering fee waivers for four college applications to income-eligible students who have taken the SAT. She also says the company is working to expand access to advanced placement courses for students who show the potential for academic success.

“Our objective with the redesigned SAT is to make the exam useful by ensuring that everything students encounter when they take it is widely applicable to their work in college and career training opportunities,” Levin said.