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National CrossTalk Fall 2001
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

2 of 5 Stories

SAT Summer Camp
Parents and students hope for a score-raising experience

By Kathy Witkowsky

MILTON, MASSACUSETTS

All her life, Tiffany Madsen wanted to go to summer camp. But the 17-year-old honor student and athlete from Everett, Massachusetts, was always too busy working and playing sports. When she finally got her chance this year, she happily packed her swimsuit and basketball, her cell phone and CDs. And of course, her number-two pencils.

That's right: her number-two pencils. That's because Tiffany had chosen to attend Whitman Enrichment Programs, a ten-day residential camp devoted to intensive SAT preparation. Forget cabins, canoes and campfire songs. This camp was all about keeping score-and then raising it.

Tiffany's mother, Debra Pace, said she'd never had to push her daughter. But Tiffany's grandmother had picked up the tab for the camp, and "expects a big return for her money," Pace said, as she dropped off Tiffany at Curry College, outside Boston. It was one of two college campuses (the other was California State University, Long Beach) where Whitman held four sessions of SAT camp this past summer. Before she left, Pace had these words for Tiffany: "Get the best score you can."

That also was the message delivered at an introductory orientation session by camp director Bill Dorfman, an affable New Yorker and former private school headmaster." We want to make sure that everyone here-I hate to put it so crassly-gets what they paid for," Dorfman told the campers, who came from nine states and half a dozen foreign countries. Most of the 22 campers-eight boys, 14 girls-attend private schools, many of which are boarding schools. "We have all of these different backgrounds," Dorfman noted, "but we're all here for the same reason: to get the best SAT score we can."

SAT preparatory courses have been around for decades. But the only thing summer had in common with the SATs was the letter "S." No more. Now summer camps, as well as academically oriented summer schools, have begun to incorporate SAT preparation into their curriculum.

"Kids are so busy that they can't fit in SAT prep except in the summer," said Chad Schaedler, executive director of pre-college programs for Kaplan, Inc., the test-prep company that teamed up with Dorfman to offer the summer camp. "And a lot of these kids go away to camp in the summer and so they want to prepare in that type of environment." Kaplan also has partnered with a tennis camp, and plans to enter into more such arrangements in the future, Schaedler said.

The Whitman camp was unique in that it was solely designed around SAT preparation, a kind of SAT prep course on steroids: three hours or more of instruction each day, plus two or more hours of supervised study. The idea, said Dorfman, was to allow kids to focus exclusively on the SAT for a short period of time, while still leaving most of the summer open for travel or other academic or camping opportunities. Many of the campers already had been abroad or attended other specialty camps before coming to this session at the end of July.

Tiffany, self-assured blond, and one of the few campers in her session who attends public school, understandably was more excited about the idea of meeting new friends and experiencing dorm life than about enduring five or more hours of SAT instruction and supervised study each day, plus tours of half a dozen nearby colleges. Still, said Tiffany, who had earned a combined score of 940 out of a possible 1600 when she took the test during the school year, "the idea of highering my scores was pretty appealing, too."

 
Campers spent at least five hours a day studying for the SAT and taking practice tests. The test prep company that ran the program refused to say how well the students did. 
Indeed, few letters strike as much fear into the hearts of ambitious teenagers and their parents as S-A-T. (Alternatively, college applicants can elect to take the curriculum- based ACTs, which also are accepted by nearly all U.S. colleges. Both tests are administered to more than a million students each year. But the SAT has a reputation as the test preferred by elite colleges, and is favored by college applicants on the east and west coasts.)

"The SATs count so much!" bemoaned 17-year-old camper Sheena Trivedi of Pittsburgh, a senior at Institut le Rosey in Switzerland, a private boarding school. "It's like a test decides your whole future."

Not exactly. But Sheena's anxiety helps explain why test-prep company revenues top $300 million annually, and are growing at an eight to ten percent annual rate, according to Eduventures, an independent market research company based in Boston. Kaplan, Inc.'s test-prep programs- including SAT, ACT and graduate-level coaching-alone earned $165 million in 2000, said Eduventures analyst Jim McVety.

Academics and testing companies can, and do, debate about the relevance and fairness of the SAT, and the effectiveness of test-prep courses. The College Board, which owns the SAT, says studies show coaching only raises scores an average of eight points on the verbal section and 18 points on the math section-with results slightly higher for Kaplan and its rival, The Princeton Review-and suggests that students' time and money may be better spent on other academic and extracurricular activities. Kaplan reports that, on average, its students increase their scores by 120 points, and that 28 percent go up 170 points or more.

But you don't have to have earned a perfect 1600 on your SATs to figure out that until and unless colleges stop using the SAT as part of their application process -and 83 percent of four-year colleges do-the Sheenas of the world will do whatever they can to get a leg up.

"I think this camp is a good thing," said Reid Sacco, 17, of Lynnfield, Massachusetts, a junior and star swimmer at Lynnfield High School who hopes to attend an Ivy League university. Reid had already taken one test-prep course during the school year, and had scored reasonably well on his junior year preliminary SATs. But, he said, "You can never do enough."

That was camper Dan Tevet's attitude. The junior state chess champion of Pennsylvania (and fourth overall in the state), Dan was planning on applying to Cornell University, his sister's alma mater, among other competitive colleges. "I'm probably in already," said Dan, who takes only Advanced Placement courses at Wyoming Seminary, where he maintains a 4.22 GPA. "I just wanted to be safe."

Who can blame him? With college applications at record numbers, kids today are under more pressure than ever, said camp director Dorfman. "No one is happy about it," he said. "It's just the society in which we live."

The SAT summer camp, Dorfman said, helps relieve some of that pressure by allowing students to focus exclusively on SAT preparation without having to balance it with academics or extracurricular activities. It also increases confidence- which is often half the battle when it comes to test-taking. The expense may be considerable, Dorfman said, but many parents see it as a good and relatively small investment compared to the tens of thousands of dollars they're likely to spend on college tuition.

Fern Guior, for instance, had already spent $4,000 on private SAT tutoring for her daughter, Danielle, a junior at Columbia Preparatory School in New York City, before coughing up another $2,500 for SAT camp.

 
  "We want to make sure that everyone here"I hate to put it so crassly"gets what they paid for," said Bill Dorfman, director of the "SAT camp," which cost $2,500 for ten days.
"It's ridiculous!" Guior said of the cost. On the other hand, she conceded, "It only helps Danielle." Unlike Tiffany's mother, Guior does not harbor Ivy League ambitions for her daughter. "I would like her to go to a very solid school-somewhere where she's going to get a good education and feel comfortable with the kids around her," Guior said. Danielle had spent the first part of the summer traveling through Europe, and the SAT camp was a way to fill up the rest of the summer with something meaningful, Guior said.

"It's a lot of money," said Rakesh Sharma, a computer engineer from Saudi Arabia, before waving goodbye to his daughter, Mira. "But we want to do something that will be good for her future."

That sentiment is one that a lot of parents apparently share. According to a 1998 report by Donald Powers of Educational Testing Service and published by the College Board, an estimated 12 percent of students who in 1995-'96 took the SAT 1 attended coaching programs outside their schools. Forty to 50 percent of those kids attended programs offered by either Kaplan or The Princeton Review.

Kaplan won't release enrollment numbers. But Kaplan's Chad Schaedler said his company's pre-college enrollment, which includes SAT and ACT prep, has increased more than 85 percent during the past decade. He believes that increase is a direct result of the record-high number of college applicants.

"Competition's fierce. That's what it comes down to. It's very difficult to get into school now," said Schaedler. "Families are looking for any advantages they can get."

That may not be fair for low-income kids who can't afford expensive prep classes, Schaedler acknowledged. But he does not consider that to be his problem or his fault. "I didn't create the tests. The tests are used for admissions which I have nothing to do with," he said.

And the disparity goes far beyond who gets to learn a few test-taking strategies, Schaedler said. "If Kaplan were to go away, a child from Scarsdale is, for the most part, still going to get a better education than a kid from a New York City public school."

Through charitable foundations, Kaplan does offer some classes for economically disadvantaged students and also contracts with public school districts in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Oakland, Los Angeles and Atlanta, among others, that want to offer test-prep classes to their students, Schaedler said.

Such government-sponsored contracts are the best way to try to level out the SAT playing field, said Rebecca Zwick, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She would like to see more programs like California's College Preparation Partnership Program, which provides SAT and ACT coaching to low-income public-school students. The 20- hour courses cost a maximum of five dollars, and have dramatically increased some students' test scores. "I really think that's the direction to move in, because I don't think test preparation is going to go away," Zwick said.

 
Although most of their time was spent preparing for the SAT, campers did visit several Boston area colleges and universities. 
If the Whitman camp is any indication, test prep is only getting more intense. In the course of ten days, the campers sat through more than 24 hours of instruction, three practice tests and endless hours of study. They became familiar with such Kaplan strategies as "back-solving" math problems by plugging in a mid-range number provided as one of the multiple choice answers, and "picking numbers" to stand in for variables. They learned to watch for key connecting words in sentences, like "even though," "however" and "too."

In addition, they toured seven nearby college campuses, both public and private, to get a sense of the types and variety of schools that exist. Recreation was limited to one night at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, two nights at the movies, and occasional games of basketball, in which the girls generally trounced the boys.

And even that rigorous schedule was too lax for 17-year-old Brian Ong of Malaysia, who is accustomed to a tougher academic climate at his British boarding school. "The study hours are too short," complained Brian, who said he had to persuade his parents to let him come to the camp rather than spend his summer vacation with them. Brian said that if he wanted to attend an American university, he felt it was important to familiarize himself with the SAT format, to which he never had been exposed in England.

This was a camp filled with pragmatists -cheerful pragmatists, for the most part. No one skipped class. No one broke curfew. They didn't even mind when morning classes spilled over into the afternoon. Aside from one resentful girl whose parents "forced" her to come (but only after she spent four weeks in Peru), they accepted their responsibilities without objection.

"You've got to do what you've got to do," shrugged 16-year-old Mira Sharma of Saudi Arabia, a junior at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Massachusetts, explaining why she and her roommate, Sheena, were inside their spartan dorm room, sorting through a thick stack of vocabulary flash cards, instead of outside enjoying the beautiful summer day.

The flash cards had been handed out as part of Kaplan's study materials, and as instructed, the girls dutifully separated them into two piles: one for words with positive connotations, one for those with negative. The idea was to make the definitions easier to remember, and the girls were hoping that the strategy would work.

Sheena had already studied for the SAT during her three-week spring break, but was unsatisfied with her score. Her father, she pointed out, had earned his MBA at Harvard, "so 1350 wasn't good enough," said Sheena, who was thinking about applying to such top-name schools as Brown, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown.

Good-even perfect-SAT scores alone won't get Sheena into any of these schools. College admissions offices also consider an applicant's grades, extracurricular activities and personal essays, among other information. But there is no doubt that SAT scores can make a difference, said UC Santa Barbara professor Zwick. So it makes sense for students to prepare themselves, she said.

"I think it would be foolish if somebody didn't prepare at all for it," said Zwick. On the other hand, she said, "Because of the anxiety surrounding the test, there are probably more kids purchasing more preparation than they actually need...Some of those kids could probably do just as well from studying with a book that costs $15."

But most of the campers said they wouldn't have the self-discipline to study on their own, and wouldn't have time to take a prep course in the fall. "It's good that we're here now because at home I won't set aside two hours to study," said Lauren Shatlock, 17, of Mansfield, Ohio.

What's more, they said, they wouldn't have had nearly so much fun doing it. "I expected dorks and nerds to come," said Mira Sharma. "But the people who are here are really cool!"

And that may be the craziest thing of all about the SAT camp: most of the kids loved it. In the dorm hallways, they flirted while they tested each other with the flashcards. On long drives in the camp van, they challenged each other to see who could use as many of their vocabulary words in as few sentences as possible-usually related to the music playing on the van's radio. Several posted a "word of the day" on their dorm door, and Tiffany and her roommate wallpapered their room with 150 handwritten vocabulary words and corresponding definitions. During a heat wave, campers propped themselves on their elbows and dangled half-in, half-out of Curry College's small outdoor pool while they completed their assignments.

Kaplan wouldn't release the scores campers earned on their practice tests. A spokesperson said that would be premature, since campers still had two months in which to use their home-study materials before they took the SAT for real in October.

But several campers who were contacted after the camp ended did indeed raise their scores from the first practice test to the third and final one-in one case by 200 points. And, they said, they began to get a sense of what types of college- urban or rural, big or small, high-powered or not-they might be interested in attending.

 
  Tiffany Madsen, an honors student and basketball player, hopes "SAT camp" will help her get into an Ivy League university.
Was it worth the money? "Hard to judge," said Dan Tevet, whose score went up 60 points over the course of the ten-day camp. Still, he said, "It was a lot of fun."

In fact, campers bonded so closely that, with typical teenaged dramatics, several cried when the camp ended, and a number of the campers have stayed in touch via phone and e-mail. Some of them are trying to plan a reunion. "It was an excellent experience," enthused Tiffany Madsen, whose score increased by 120 points. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

Back home in Everett, Tiffany's friends had a hard time believing that she'd enjoyed SAT camp. But even if she hadn't told them about her experiences there, they might have been able to guess that Tiffany hadn't gone to any ordinary camp when she started sprinkling words like "amicable" and "winsome" into her conversation.

"They were like, 'What?'" Tiffany said. "I would say a word and tell them what it meant." The pedantry didn't go over so big, though, so now Tiffany has relegated her new vocabulary to her school papers. And, she hopes, to her SATs, which she takes again this fall.

"I want to live up to what I've learned," Tiffany said.

But if she's still not satisfied with her scores, Tiffany can always sign up for more instruction at a Kaplan, Inc. center or through the company's online SAT courses -provided, of course, that she can come up with several hundred dollars to pay for it.

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