Sunday, March 13, 2016

Is it "unfair" to get a test-prep tutor or enroll in an expensive course?

I once had a parent call to explore the idea of getting an SAT coach for his daughter.  He told me about her, but then he said he was worried about whether or not getting her a coach represented an unfair advantage.  I pointed out that since she was at an expensive private school, her application would be read as if she had a coach whether she did or not.  (I did not point out how funny it was that he was worried about unequal access to test coaching, but not about unequal access to the private school she was in.  They also lived in one of the neighborhoods filled with mcmansions.) I guess my argument did not carry the day, because I didn't end up working with his daughter.

So is there an inequity involved in spending money to get your child ready for a college entrance exam?  And if there is, how much should you worry about that?  Would the world be a better place if everyone boycotted the tutors, the Princeton Review, the books, and online courses?  This came up on Quora, and this was my reply:

Here is something to keep in mind about "SAT coaching": It is a really big umbrella. When we read or hear about it in the media it sounds like the rich kids are buying special secrets that you only get to have if you have enough money. I assure you that I have never given anyone a test-taking tip that isn't available "out there" for everyone. As one fellow tutor always says, "There is no special sauce." Hiring an SAT coach might be like hiring a personal trainer. Most people could do it on their own, but hiring someone streamlines the process. People with more money than time tend to do this for all aspects of their lives including SAT preparation.

When parents call me to coach their kids for a college entrance exam they always say, "He/she is a very good student, but he/she doesn't test well." They will allow that the student might need just a little review, but they will anxiously inquire as to whether I teach the testing tips. And I say, "Umm...sure." And I do. For five minutes. And then we spend the rest of the ten hours on the algebra he never learned, or the grammar she completely missed because they moved at just the wrong time. You see, there is a lot of cachet in going to an SAT tutor every week. There is no cachet at all in going to an I-never-learned-grammar tutor every week.

Is it fair that the rich kid who never learned grammar gets a tutor to fill in that hole before he has to take his college entrance exam, while the poor kid who never learned grammar doesn't? Of course not. However, it would be silly to say that no one gets to learn grammar until everyone can. Or that no one can know algebra well until everyone does. Surely the more educated people we have the better off we are.

So, in answer to your question: If you need a coach, and you can afford one, get a coach. Be a more educated person. If you are worried about the inequities of this world - and really, if you were to rank all of the inequities in the world, unequal access to SAT tutors wouldn't make the top ten - then use your increased knowledge to do good.

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