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College entrance exams: big stress, big business

As college-entrance exams have become increasingly important for scholarship money and acceptance to universities, the pressure on students in Oklahoma and nationwide to perform and the courses available for test preparation have skyrocketed.
BY MEGAN ROLLAND and DARLA SLIPKE Published: September 9, 2011

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.”

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