Is There a Difference?

They filed into Memorial Hall on Saturday morning, apprehensiveness etched on their tense, pre-professional faces. Students single-filed sheepishly past the checkers at the double-doors to take the "Great Equalizer"--the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).

"The LSAT score makes the difference with so many of our candidates to the top schools," a Harvard pre-law tutor said. "There's no doubt it's a numbers game--GPA (grade point average) and LSATs are the whole ballgame Everybody's got extracurriculars, and the 'diversity' schools mention in their catalogues are too often code words for minority applicants."

With the premium on board scores as a standardized measure--whether it be for college (SATs), business school (GMATs)--graduate school (GREs), or medical school (MCATs)--it's little wonder that the test preparation business has mushroomed into a flourishing multi-million dollar industry.

A Forest Hills, N.Y., parent has spent over $700 on special SAT preparation courses and private tutoring because she believes that the competition her son faces to get into an Ivy League school from the metropolitan area is extremly intense. "My son needs every extra edge he can get in order to have a chance of getting admitted at Harvard this year," she says.

That woman and her son are hardly the paranoid exceptions. Parents in suburban and middle-class areas across the country have been petitioning their local school boards to institute SAT prep courses as part of the normal high school curriculum. Unlike inner-city areas, where learning itself is a problem, these students allegedly receive an excellent education. In Greenwich, Conn, a wealthy New York suburb, almost half the town's tax revenue goes to schools; indeed, realtors use the superiority of the Greenwich system as a main selling point. Yet the average SAT score at Greenwich High School continues to decline, sending parents into an uproar and administrators fumbling for an explanation.

Parents of these students seem willing to pay extra money for such courses, in or out of the normal school learning process. They reason that if the college game revolves around getting a high score on a three-hour test, then Johnny and Suzy should be intensively primered for such an exercise. "After all," claims the Forest Hills woman, "Isn't high school supposed to prepare you for college?"

But officials of the Educational Testing Services and other major testing firms assert that the fear and loathing over their exams is unfounded. Just study our sample test in the booklet, they say, and you'II be set. As for the test preparation industry, the official line has been that

"There is no evidence that taking cram courses or studying review books gives any advantage that cannot be attained by conscientious study of the sample questions and tests contained in this Bulletin. The Law School Admission Council and Educational Testing Service do not sponsor, support, sanction, or have any relationship with courses, schools, or other publications purporting the improve LSAT scores."

From LSAT Bulletin, page 17.

However, in an attempt to placate the wrath received from high school students and their parents, the College Board (administrators of the SAT) has followed the Law School Council's lead. This fall, for the first time ever, the board published a complete sample SAT test along with explanations of the answers.

"This is not a coaching device, but a familiarization process, so that anxiety and fear will be dissipated," Charles Holloway, College Board director of special projects, said.

"Historically, the board has taken the position that intensive drills and coaching doesn't do much good," Holloway said. "But in recent years more studies were done that show there may be some effect on the math section. Refreshing and reviewing math may be advantageous. In the verbal area, it doesn't do much good."

Holloway's remarks and his organization's recent innovation reflect the hedging attitude that prevails among the major testing firms. The parental pressure--and influential votes that it portends--has led the Federal Trade Commission to get involved. Groups like the New York Public Interest Research Group have proposed that ETS make available test solutions and answers. Currently, students have no idea of how they have done when they leave the examination room. Skepticism also prevails over the use of experimental questions within the body of the test; questions of fairness in this area have also been raised.

The FTC has also been looking at test preparation industries and its claims. Although no report has officially been released yet, observers expect that the FTC report will back up Stanley H.Kaplan's claim that "there is a difference."

But even Kaplan doesn't promise improved test scores. "We don't make any guarantees about your score," says Kaplan. "We try to get you to the top of your potential, but a lot depends on how hard you are willing to work on our homework and tape assignments. The people we help the most are the ones who can profit from an organized, efficient review."

He does claim, however, that "thousands have improved their scores," based upon the results that students voluntarily submit. Word-of-mouth advertising comprises 80 per cent of Kaplan's business. But while some people swear by his preparation system, others swear at him.

"It was a waste of time," Steve Rosenthal, a Winthrop House senior, says bluntly. "I think I would have gotten the same exact score without it. I tell people to buy a review book--they'II save $245."

But even Rosenthal admits that he didn't get to the tapes, which Kaplan sees as constituting a third of his course. And Chris Ball, an Eliot House senior, believes that "there's no question you can improve your score 50-60 points by practicing intensely. I think Kaplan is more detailed, in-depth and up-to-date than any book. But you've got to have the initiative to come into Boston and work hard. After all, you're spending all that money."

Ask a hundred people what the best way to go about preparing for the sundry aptitude tests is, and you'll get a hundred answers. Even counselors at Harvard's Office of Career Services and Off-Campus Learning say there's no one sure-fire method of preparation. Which is exactly the reason why people flock to test-prep centers like Kaplan's for his own answer.