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Local Tutors Offer SAT Prep Options

Changes in college admissions test raise anxiety and demand for prep courses and tutoring.

The revised SAT will make its debut in six short weeks — which is just enough time for students to cram in a test prep course with one of many local tutoring firms.

The changes to the test are the most wide-ranging in its history. On the verbal portion of the test, the analogies section has been deleted and a 25-minute writing test plus questions about grammar were added. The math section sees a slight increase in difficulty, adding questions on trigonometry and advanced algebra. And to cap these changes, the test is now scored out of 2,400, rather than 1,600. The writing test accounts for the additional 800.

With the scale of the changes, it's no surprise that more local students are turning to extracurricular SAT training. Huntington Learning Center has expanded its SAT offerings to cope with increased demand, said Karen Helm, director at the Fairfax Huntington branch.

SAT tutoring begins with an assessment. At Huntington, that assessment takes the form of administering an actual SAT, with additional skills assessments to zero in on student's shortcomings. Once that's done, a tutor sits down with the student and parents to outline options.

"We say, 'This is your SAT, this is your GPA, these are schools you could get into, these are schools that would be a reach,' and then we design a program to help achieve their goals," Helm said.

The changes to the SAT are both good and bad, said Cheryl Feuer, director of Herndon-based Tutoring for Success. For example, the removal of analogies makes it unnecessary for students to learn vocabulary out of context. Instead of memorizing lists of "SAT words,” Feuer recommended that students read widely to help reading comprehension scores.

THE WRITING SECTION, which asks that test-takers evaluate a quote, then back up their opinion with examples from culture, history, or their own experience, is expected to be a challenge.

"Students don't necessarily have that much experience," with the desired style of writing, Feuer said.

Beverly Weaver, director of Kingsbury Northern Virginia Tutoring Center, said that the current fashion of teaching writing through the “whole writing” process, in which students start with an idea web and work on an essay through several drafts, also serves to make the writing portion challenging.

“Kids aren’t used to writing on the spot,” she said. “It’s a good process, but you can’t do it in 25 minutes.” Kingsbury tutors help students make a web or outline a few minutes and then move directly into a final draft.

Another new section — word usage, which asks students to make grammatically correct sentences — is so challenging that, Feuer said, tutors who took a practice test averaged four out of 20 wrong, and no one's test was completely correct.

STUDENTS SEEKING SAT prep can choose between one-on-one tutoring and small groups. Prep classes are offered by private companies and by local school systems.

Huntington offers only one-on-one sessions, Helm said. "It allows us to vary instruction based on student needs. In a class, if the majority of the class is weak on verbal but you're weak in math, you may not be able to get as much benefit."

She added that one-on-one tutoring can help even students with weaknesses in very specific areas, such as geometry. On practice tests, these sessions have caused student scores on the revised SAT to improve by an average of 200 points.

The cost is $195 for the initial consultation, and then $45 to $65 per hour for instruction. The number of sessions needed depends on the student, Helm said.

Tutoring for Success offers both small groups and one-on-one sessions. Feuer said that the small groups are often more energetic, and allow students to interact, while one-on-one sessions allow students to work on whatever specific problems they have. The hourly rate for individual sessions is $65-$75, while students in the small groups will pay $700 for eight three-hour sessions.

Kingsbury also offers both one-on-one tutoring and group sessions. Generally, the one-on-one sessions are for students with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, or other special needs, Weaver said. The cost is $70 per hour for individual tutoring and $550 for six two-hour sessions for the group. Students will get out of group sessions what they put into them, she said. “When you take SAT prep courses, a lot of people think taking the course makes the difference. That’s not entirely true. The course lays out information, but what prepares you is doing the work again and again,” Weaver said.

Whatever tutoring option is chosen, Feuer cautioned students and parents not to get too wrapped up in SAT scores.

"They need to remember that most better colleges consider other things. Part of your score is going to be chance, and this doesn't tell you whether you're dumb or smart."