This post was written by BEEC’s Director of Education Peter Alexander.
Let’s just admit it, “test prep/tutoring” is a “gig” for most of the people who are involved in this business — Uber for education. Many are in this just for a short-term survival paycheck. They have to maximize their returns by taking as many opportunities as possible. When a frustrated parent dumped test prep/tutoring company A for a self-believed “better” company B, he or she may be surprised to meet the same Mr. or Mrs. Johnson at company B’s doorstep again. Yes, Johnson is the face behind many businesses in this industry. He is hardly signed on for work with just one company. Did Johnson ever care about this “gig”?
Yes, often at the beginning of their careers in this industry, when they naively believed this work would get them somewhere or make them into something, these “Uber-educators” were filled with glowing aspirations for what they might be able to do for kids. But the bubble of career development or adequate returns quickly bursts. This “gig” turns into a means of surviving — filled with hectic schedules and mechanical repetitions of test-only information. Johnsons and alike face stressed out students everyday who most likely have little or no motivation to do “test-prep” either. None of these things really motivate a person to engage in what they do. Sadly, this is the situation for most of the test prep industry today.
Now enter the world of COVID-19. Now everyone can be an “online educator” — really? With the same carelessness anyone with a driver’s license can join Uber, it seems anyone with a Zoom connection can be a teacher. While the healthcare industry is greatly simplifying their hiring procedures, it seems the online education world has all but abandoned screening processes to maximally profit from these terrible recent developments. . Regardless of the qualifications of the many gig education companies out there, the facts remain:
The College Board is still offering the SAT.
ACT is still planning for a vibrant summer of testing.
The TOEFL is still required for major colleges and universities.
Yet, we might wonder: are tests, such as SAT and ACT, still relevant anymore? Maybe they will quickly drop out of the equation of college admissions, as some hope — especially now. And at the same time, more and more colleges offer test-optional or test-free policies now. Research showed that SAT/ACT test scores are not good indicators of future performance. And SAT/ACT can create social inequality in college admissions.
Be that as it may, tests are developed to standardize the measurement of learning, although their effectiveness in doing so is a matter of considerable debate. National tests are not unique to the US only, many other countries use a standard test for college admissions. It is a way to standardize evaluations; with one test, across the nation using some quantifiable, comparable and comprehensible results, it is thought that people can be categorized. Simply put, it is thought that human beings can easily be compared based on sets of unidimensional sets of numbers derived from standardized tests.
But we all know life does not quite work like that. Comparing things that stretch across more than simple numbers can be very challenging. For instance, picking a wedding date is not only about a person’s height; choosing a car involves much more than just its price. The unidimensional nature of tests greatly abstracts from a rich set of summary data, only that which can be quickly ordered. This “simplification effect” provided by test scores surely sacrifices completeness for the sake of efficiency.
However, efficiency is an issue when there are large numbers of individuals striving for a few number of positions. Until the human race finds an alternative that better balances completeness and efficiency, tests as a tool of measurement will still have their place at least in the near future. No doubt, test content will be regularly revised and adjusted to mitigate as many foreseeable misrepresentations in the attempt to be as fair as possible. But being so deeply rooted in “the ways” of our society, where the “benefits” for admissions officers are still generally thought to outweigh the “risks”, it seems unlikely that we will see standardized testing eradicated from admissions procedures any time soon.
The test optional or test free policies are designed to tackle our social inequality issues. Without getting into their effectiveness and all the conspiracy theories of the intentions, a large portion, if not the majority, of this country’s students will live with the need to take these tests. A student without economic difficulty or reasonable personal hardships will NOT genuinely have the freedom to simply opt out of these tests. And so, the test-prep industry will remain relevant for the majority of us. Some core questions about this industry remain unanswered for students, parents and all practitioners: why students seek test prep industry solutions? What values does this industry support and how can we best demonstrate these values? Let’s start with the first one: Why do students seek external help for test-prep?
Three big reasons:
1. Accountability — Standardized tests are not trivial. For example, an SAT score of 500 in English and 550 in Math is considered equivalent to a passing score on the California Basic Skills Test (CBEST) — a required designation for all California credentialed teachers. The passing rate for the (CBEST) is typically less than 71%. This means that after four years of college, almost a third of aspiring teachers in California can’t even score higher than 1050 on the SAT! If these are the conditions for teachers, how much more must high school students need the training and accountability of outside help to prepare to do well on these tests. However, it is not an unreasonable criticism to point out that a significant portion of licensed teachers are not qualified to help students succeed on these tests.
Especially now, given the current circumstances of COVID-19, the online “education” space is flooded with well meaning individuals who may genuinely want to help students excel in these tests — and yet are in FACT miserably unqualified for such a task.
2. Competitive Advantage — Typical K-12 public education focuses on the Common Core standards as measures of student academic readiness. These basic skills really are the irreducible minimum for which students should be held responsible. However, for students interested in competitive career paths such as law, finance, medicine, engineering etc., their academic capacity must extend as far beyond the “common core” as Shakespeare extends beyond sentences, or calculus beyond counting.
3. Academic Support — Public schools especially, but private schools as well, often have a difficult time addressing the specific concerns of large groups of students. Many thoughtful students are left feeling that their preparation is incomplete. These students especially benefit from having experts they can rely on to not only “fill in the gaps,” but also extend their subject knowledge toward mastery. This is what we at BEEC mean by genuine academic support. Of course we answer student questions, but we go beyond that. We teach our students to correctly assess their own mastery of a subject, and prioritize information.
What values shall this industry really provide? We would summarize with one key word — “learning”. Test prep or tutoring are simply continuations of school or at home learning. It is the opportunity for students to demonstrate skills and knowledge in a kind of simulation of what test writers call “real world” contexts. Tests are motivators for students to learn. In the same way that athletes use performance metrics to boost their efficiency, academic performance is strengthened by mastery of materials on widely accepted standardized tests. They are designed to assess a student’s understanding of his knowledge in vocabulary, quantitative methods, reading, and writing etc. With these fundamental skills, students are prepared to continue their studies in colleges, enter the society and pave their own paths.
While a core value of this industry is to help students maximize their performance, we shouldn’t lose sight of our roles in encouraging and motivating them to learn. It is important not to derail a student from his learning path and mislead them by giving them the impression that a high test score is all that matters. As discussed previously, test-prep instructors further teach students more skills through applications and facilitate a deeper level of understanding that one can’t obtain without practicing.
It has been said that the lazy person always works the hardest. The reason is this: Lazy students simply want to get by. When the time comes for them to really show some substantial reason for why they are useful or worthy of good standing, they will have to work extremely hard to cover for the time they wasted on idle distractions.
In contrast, the diligent person has already been practicing and using knowledge and information useful to themselves and society. When they are called upon to demonstrate what they know, there is no great effort that is needed. They simply express themselves for who they have become as diligent students and practitioners of their craft.
It is this latter kind of student that we seek to develop. It is these kinds of values that we seek to promote. It is for this reason that we have tried to outline some areas of the “test prep” industry which are exceedingly inadequate. But how can the industry better deliver its values?
One core issue we have identified is that there is a mismatch between the importance of tests in our children’s lives and the meager dedication of practicing personnel in this industry. Let’ start with a story. Several years ago, I was purchasing the latest “innovations” in some popular test prep books at Barnes and Noble. The cashier looked at my intended “stow” and commented “I tried to get a job teaching this — just the math — but they would not let me until I scored 770 or better — it did not matter to them that I have my master’s in electrical engineering from Stanford.” Apparently, an advanced degree from a prestigious institution did not help this older fellow much to demonstrate mastery of the SAT mathematics sections— even after he got some “practice” with review books. Indeed, I wonder how many math professors at U.C. Berkeley would score above 770 on the math section if they tried without preparing. The industry screens instructors by unidimensional criteria, SAT score, without much consideration of other aspects. The most troubling point here is that the cashier with years of experiences in practicing quantitative skills and a sincere intention to teach math was denied the opportunity.
In the same way college admissions consultants need to take seriously the demands of their craft, a good test-prep firm must value things that are critical, novel and useful for the development of character-focused success. As such, they must also create an environment that is staffed by holistically oriented professional instructors. These kinds of instructors are career path members of a flourishing educational community — not gig performers for hire. As such their compensation is commensurate with their status and expertise. A positive reinforcement cycle instills meaning into their work, which in turn motivates them to better help our children. Meaning will transcend test-prep and make learning a real possibility through a firm’s contribution to the test-prep industry as those who teach our children to refocus on education from a holistic perspective.
Our instructors have the chance to help our kids think more about what they need to learn, who they may want to be, and how they can develop themselves. As parents, we will get the most out of this holistic “angel” if the test-prep industry can be changed. This is not a business plan, but more a critical analysis of the industry that shall guide how we will conduct ourselves in test-prep and tutoring. In closing this discussion, we want to say that all these issues we discussed above are the very reasons why we believe BEEC must address these issues as a provider of services within this industry. As President Obama chanted in his campaign: “Change we can believe in”, we also desire to bring about meaningful, useful and respectable changes in this industry which we all can indeed believe in. Yes, with all the preparation and thoughts we put into our service design, we believe that — “Yes, we can”.