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County schools help students prep for SATs

County schools help students prep for SATs
(Jen Rynda, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

For the first time this school year, Baltimore County Public Schools offered a six-week SAT preparatory course for students in nine high schools.

Taught be teachers with Kaplan Test Prep, a national education company, the course was held on Saturdays, from the last week in January for six sessions, three hours per sessionin each of the nine schools. The fee-based course focused on prepping for the SAT, the standardized test developed by The College Board that is often a requirement for college admission. The high schools were Overlea, Kenwood, Pikesville, Franklin, New Town, Lansdowne, Parkville, Sparrows Point and Owings Mills, and the course was only open to students in those schools.

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"I like to think we are lessening the stress around the SAT," said Heather Wooldridge, coordinator of college and career readiness for BCPS. "We give students multiple opportunities to be comfortable with the exam."

The Kaplan preparation course, negotiated at an undisclosed discounted fee per student, is one of several initiatives BCPS has undertaken in recent years to get students ready for college.

The goal is to provide equal access to college admission testing. Wooldridge said, "The SAT is a huge priority."

The Kaplan course option was first introduced in the 2013-14 academic year in two schools, Overlea and New Town. It turned out to be so popular and the results positive enough that BCPS expanded it this year to nine schools.None are in the Towson area, however.

From a pre-test given on the first day to the end of the Kaplan course, "students jumped between 20 and 300 points on their SAT scores," Wooldridge said.

Another initiative by county schools began three years ago with an agreement with The College Board, an educational nonprofit. Ordinarily, the SAT is given at College Board-designated sites in the county. On April 15, though, 11th-graders will have the opportunity to take the SAT in their home schools and with the school system paying the fee. Without the arrangement, the SAT fee this year is$52.50, although students may apply for a waiver.

A similar BCPS-College Board agreement regarding free testing in home schoolsextends to the PSATs, a precursor to the SATs, which are offeredto ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders every year in October.

"The students are exposed [through the PSATs] to the test. They know what to expect and take it in a comfortable environment," Wooldridge said.

According to John Komosa, department chair of school counseling at Dulaney High, in Timonium, "Almost all our students take the SAT in their junior year."

Dulaney High has 460 11th-graders.

Dulaney High also participates in another college readiness initiative provided by county public schools. Students in their junior year may enroll in a for-credit, year-long combination math and language arts SAT preparation course. Offered in fall and spring semesters during the school day this year, 150 students signed up for it.

Like Dulaney High, most county high schools offer an in-school SAT preparation course, although there is flexibility. Schools may choose to offer either one semester each of math and language arts or a year-long course.

In addition to the SAT prep course,county public school teachers incorporate SAT material into their own courses, Wooldridge said, and there are after-school SAT clubs at some high schools, some in the Towson/Timonium area.

Besides the BCPS programs, Komosa said that "a number of students take paid courses."

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Besides the Kaplan Test Prep course, hementions Sylvan and Huntington, well-known names in the educational prep field, as well as private tutors, often current and former teachers. These range in price from $299 per person for an online, self-paced course at Sylvan Learning Center (Kaplan has an online course for a comparable fee) to $699 for an 18-hour, three-session course at Kaplan taught in a classroom by a teacher to $1,100 for a 30-hour 8-session Sylvan course taught in a classroom by a teacher.

"It's not uncommon for students to take the test more than once — two and sometimes three times. Timing matters in terms of applying for early admission" to college, said Devon Wible, Kaplan Test Prep director of SAT and ACT programs from the company's New York Cityheadquarters.

The biggest trend regarding the Kaplan Test Prep is the increasing number of students who take both the SAT and the ACT, or American College Testing, another college-readiness assessment test, Wible said.

Traditionally, colleges, especially those on the East Coast, accepted the SAT only. Wible said that is changing, however, with more colleges accepting either of the tests. In addition, by taking the ACT, students can choose which of the two tests' scores to submit for admission.

"We suggest students take practice tests in both, and see which you perform better on," Wible said.

Kaplan offers a fee-based SAT prep course in locations around the county, including one at Goucher College, thatruns from April 18 to May 30 at a cost of $699. The courseis open to any student, whatever the high school or grade, and isnot part of BCPS initiatives. Wible said that most students take the PSAT in the fall of their junior year, and then in spring take either the SAT or the ACT. Students may also choose to take the SAT in the fall of their senior year.

"Most colleges take the highest score," Wible said. "Students have the option of choosing which score to send. But you have to send the entire score. You can't send the math score from one test and the language arts score from a different test."

The College Board has announced major changes in the PSAT and SAT, a revision that will affect the Class of 2017. The changes include a return to a top combined score of 1600 versus the current 2400, an optional rather than required essay and elimination of the sentence completion portion. The new PSAT will be offered next fall for the first time, the new SAT in March of 2016.

"We are preparing a new curriculum" in response to the SAT changes, Wible said.

Katie Forero is director of the Sylvan Learning Center in Timonium, one of four Sylvan centers in Baltimore metro. It offers an eight-week SAT preparation course. Courses are ongoing.

"We recommend students taken the SAT twice in their junior year and in the fall of their senior year," she said.

Forero said that many of the inquiries she gets are when a student has done poorly on the SAT. Academic skills may not be the problem but, rather, lack of a test-taking strategy, she said .

"There's a lot of strategy to the SAT, from how to write the essay to which questions to skip and how to time yourself," she said. "We can't guarantee improvement but we can teach you strategy."

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