Heather Farrill is driving an hour from her high school in Prague every night this week for a college-entrance exam prep-course in Edmond that has the reputation of boosting student's scores by as much as four to five points.
“A higher score means more money,” Farrill said. “And I would like money.”
Farrill, 18, is a senior at Prague High School and like many students in the class of 2013, Saturday is one of the last chances to improve their ACT scores before they apply to college.
The difference of a few points on the exam can be the difference between thousands of dollars in merit-based scholarships.
About 100 students from across the metro area flooded the Edmond Memorial High School cafeteria Wednesday night for the $75 ACT crash-course taught by Steve Bowlware, a math teacher at the school. The course is nine hours of instruction over three nights, the week before the big test.
Across the nation, college-prep tests have become big business, with students dropping up to $1,000 for monthlong classes for ACT and SAT college entrance exams.
The nation's two largest test preparation companies, Kaplan and Princeton Review, reported $415 million and $102.7 million in revenues respectively in their 2010 shareholders statements. Those figures are the revenues for college entrance exam tests like the ACT and SAT and graduate level exams like the MCAT and LSAT.
When word got out that Bowlware's class was getting results for a fraction of the cost of the big-business prep courses, interest grew.
“It just kind of got bigger and bigger,” Bowlware said. “This is the largest September class I've ever had. I don't know how students hear about it.”
None of Bowlware's testing tips – for example, that “no change” is a great option in the English section of the ACT — can make up for four years of good education and hard studies, Bowlware said.
“It's a pretty good predictor of student success in college,” Bowlware said, noting his best students usually score accordingly.
However, Bowlware has seen over the years that his tips improve scores: sometimes one or two points, sometimes four or five and, on the rare occasion, 10 or 11 points.
“Those stories get out there,” he said.
Students don't have to pay to prepare for the tests. Ed Colby, spokesman for ACT Inc., said there are a number of free resources on the test company's website that should help students prepare for the four-hour exam.
“The ACT is a curriculum-based test, which measures what students have learned in school, so the best way to prepare is to take challenging courses in school, study hard and learn the material,” Colby said.
“There aren't a lot of test-taking tips that we believe are going to help students in terms of trying to outsmart the test. We don't put a lot a stock in expensive test prep programs.”
Standardized test scores play a major role in whether students are admitted to college and the amount of scholarships they get.
For example, University of Oklahoma resident students who score a 31 or higher on their ACT and meet other grade requirements can qualify for a $10,000 partial tuition waiver over the course of four years.
This year, the average ACT score for incoming freshmen at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma was 25.0 and 26.1, respectively. Both universities offer several admission options, a few of which are based solely or in part on ACT scores. The minimum ACT requirement for both universities ranges between 21 and 24, based on the admission option a student chooses, compared with 20 at the state's regional universities.
Students have other admissions options based on their grade-point average and class rank, but they must submit an ACT or SAT score regardless, officials at OSU and OU said.
Oklahoma State University Provost Robert Sternberg said standardized tests are “overrated.”
“It's too bad they've acquired such prominence,” Sternberg said.
Under Sternberg's guidance, OSU officials have adopted an alternative method for assessing students' creative, analytical, practical and wisdom-based skills. The project, called Panorama, encourages students to answer a few open-ended questions when they apply for admission to the university.
The questions are designed to measure leadership skills in a way standardized tests don't, Sternberg said.
They are not a substitute for grade, class rank or test score requirements.
“Colleges should be about developing people who make the state a better place and the world a better place,” Sternberg said. “We're not going to figure out who they are by looking at their ACT scores.”
Higher education officials recommend students who score a 19 or below on their ACT take remedial courses, said Cindy Brown, director of student preparation for the State Regents for Higher Education.
Those students must take a secondary assessment. If they score well enough on the secondary test, they aren't required to take remediation in college.
Nearly half of Oklahoma students from the Class of 2011 who took the ACT scored below a 19 in math.
“It's a very big concern for the state,” Brown said.
Some students take the ACT as early and often as possible to try to boost their scores, Brown said.
She said the best preparation for the exam is a strong, rigorous curriculum.
A test cannot truly predict how well a student will do in college, Brown said, but the ACT is “about the best measure we have.”
“It seems to be better than nothing,” Brown said.
Bowlware said right or wrong, the ACT has become the definitive measure of student's college readiness.
“I can remember when I took the test, we took it once and that was it,” Bowlware said. “There's a lot of pressure now.”