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Learning Matters: Preparing for tests can help alleviate stress for families

College-aspiring high school juniors and seniors in Glendale and elsewhere gathered last weekend to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, that long-established threshold to the college application and admissions process.

The test itself has changed somewhat since I took it, expanding from the 1600-point exam we and our older children experienced to the 2400-point version taken by our younger son nearly a decade ago. Last year, the test reverted back to 1600 points, in a revised edition that now competes with rival ACT for domination of the college-entrance-exam market. The ACT is scheduled for this weekend.

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But whether it’s the SAT or the ACT, test-taking for bachelor degree-bound students is still the norm, and school-wide standardized testing of academic proficiencies is an ever-present theme of educational debate. More significant than the particulars of the tests, however, may be the cultural changes and the range of business enterprises the testing culture has spawned.

Both in schools, where standards-based testing has become central to data-driven educational reforms intended to close persistent achievement gaps, and for individual students hoping for admission to their dream colleges, tests have taken up more and more time, attention and money.

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Starting in 1999, with the advent of the statewide accountability system known as the Academic Performance Index, or API, schoolwide test scores became the API’s most prominent data points, often published alongside the federal Academic Yearly Performance, or AYP, rankings. Soon, PTA and school board meetings regularly included updates on APIs and AYPs. Real estate agents, who had long pointed to the quality of a community’s schools in relation to home values, began referencing the scores to drive sales, and chambers of commerce highlighted high-performing schools in their promotional materials.

Also, school districts began marketing their scores as they developed programs designed to improve learning, attract students and increase the per-pupil funding tied to enrollment. Neighborhood school attendance boundaries, once clearly defined by streets on a school district map, began to blur as intra- and inter-district transfers gradually became more common and school choice more widespread.

Currently, among 20 elementary schools in Glendale Unified, half are schools of choice, including three designated as magnet schools — arts, technology and computer coding — and nine foreign language academies. Two of the three magnets also have language immersion programs.

The spread of the charter-school movement, another cultural shift in education, can also be linked to the elevation of test data in the public perception. With the advent of social media, parents regularly turn to online sites identifying “best schools” rated largely according to test scores.

Back on the personal side of the testing world, students facing SATs or ACTs have felt the pressure of rising stakes, too. While such tests always loomed large among teens, attention to test preparation, or test prep, has increased in parallel with marketing efforts by colleges and other educational companies seeking qualified applicants.

As L.A. Times business columnist David Lazarus reported recently (“True or false? Test firms sell out kids,” Dec. 1, 2017), test companies regularly share student information with other student-serving companies or colleges which then market their programs to teenagers. This data sharing goes a long way toward explaining the piles of college information packets arriving each year in the homes of high school students.

Especially for families with financial means, enrolling children in expensive test-prep programs has become a common practice to increase their children’s chances for college admission. Sitting with a group of teachers recently, one shared with me the stress her family is experiencing as her daughter pleads for the $10,000 in services of a college admissions consultant like the one some of her friends have hired.

I was happy in that moment to share with her some of the good news I’ve been hearing on the test-prep front. Not only is help available at affordable prices, but there is a growing cadre of talented and entrepreneurial millennials — successful students and test-takers themselves — committed to helping other students succeed and be mindful of the costs to families.

“Tests are a barrier to get into college,” Bhavin Parikh told me in a phone interview late last month. Parikh is the chief executive and co-founder of Magoosh, an online test-prep company I’d heard advertised on the radio. His team of educators and subject-matter experts share his passion to help students overcome those barriers and do it at a more affordable price — currently $99.00 for six months of online test-prep access and support, including personal responses to emails when requested.

I was wary at first of test prep as an industry.

As the Magoosh webite warns, “There’s so much advice out there on the Internet on ACT vs. SAT, and so much of it is not good for you.”

I still believe the advice I heard at a PTA convention years ago, that the best preparation for SATs and college admissions is reading every day.

But I also recognize that some students struggle with tests more than others, for reasons outside their own intrinsic abilities, and that student and family stresses have changed. Magoosh and other young companies are attuned to those stresses and are finding ways to help.

Private Prep, an in-person tutoring company, was founded on the notion that “Improving test performance is fundamentally about learning to perform under pressure.” Or as our son, who tutors part-time, told me in an email, “With test prep, you learn how — via logic — you can arrive at the ‘best’ answer. And that’s not a bad skill to have.”

Testing has affected students’ lives in many ways. The education community should be glad some of those students have made it their career.

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