Ten students, most of them 11th-graders striving to become the first in their families to attend college, gathered recently for an after-school program at the Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro. The attraction: a new online practice program from the Khan Academy for upcoming SAT exams, a tool that could boost their scores and enhance their chances of gaining college admission.
Not only is Khan’s new program free to users, it was created in partnership with the College Board, the organization that owns and runs the SAT. As a collaboration, it represents a sharp contrast to past hostilities between the College Board and other prep firms that typically charge hundreds, even thousands of dollars for SAT practice programs.
At the Boys and Girls Club, Natalia Vasquez, a junior at San Pedro High School, said she appreciated how the Khan site links to PSAT scores and practice tests and then diagnoses where students most need help, placing them in appropriate starting levels of algebra problems and literature readings.
“I like it because it shows me what I was weak in and helps me to improve,” said Vasquez, who first took the SAT in March and plans to re-take it in June. Plus, she and other teens are aware that many other test-prep systems come with hefty price tags.
“This is convenient,” she said, “and you don’t have to pay for it.”
But despite the convenience and zero cost, a big question looms: Will the new collaboration actually make a difference in students’ scores?
College officials, high school teachers and standardized test skeptics, along with millions of students around California and the nation, are all hoping for an answer soon – particularly on whether the free tutorials reduce the persistent score gaps that put Latino and African-American test-takers significantly below Asians and whites.
Katy Murphy, a former president of the National Association of College Admission Counseling and a college counselor director at Bellarmine College Preparatory high school in San Jose, predicts that Khan and the College Board have about 18 months to show the impact of the collaboration, including how much time students spent on it.
“They need to do it if we are going to believe that the Khan Academy test prep is working,” she said.
“For Khan to work well, it takes an extraordinary amount of self-discipline by a teenager to sit down, do the drills, work out the problems and take multiple practice tests,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.
The Khan Academy’s “Official SAT Practice” site was created in connection with an overhaul of the SAT itself, which is, among other things, aligning the exam more closely with high school classes and ending penalties for guessing. So far, about 1.1 million students nationwide have created Khan-SAT prep accounts, and 300,000 of them have linked their past PSAT and SAT scores to it for placement in the website’s lessons, according to the College Board.
The organization has not released statistics reflecting such benchmarks of engagement as how many hours students on average used the website and how many students completed practice exams. But officials said surveys of recent SAT-takers showed that 63 percent of those who used Khan found it “very or extremely useful.”
Aaron Lemon-Strauss, the College Board’s executive director of SAT Student Success, said the philosophy behind the partnership is that “there can’t be assessment in this country without opportunity tied to it.” The College Board is expected early next month to give students and colleges individual scores from the first time students took the revised exam, which was in March and also was the first one for which the Khan tutorials were available in advance. National, state and ethnic group averages will be publicly released in the future. College Board officials will be “very excited to dive into that data” and see if the Khan program “is effective and especially if it is helping to close score gaps between different populations,” Lemon-Strauss said, adding that he expects positive results.
Khan Academy is a nonprofit educational organization, created in 2006 by Salman “Sal” Khan and based in Mountain View, that provides free videos and other online tools to aid in teaching and learning. In describing the new collaboration with the Khan program prior to its release, College Board leaders predicted that it would “level the playing field” by providing all youngsters, regardless of income, access to the type of high-quality prep that affluent families buy from private companies and tutors.
However, critics charge that the test changes and the Khan tutorials were just window dressing on the College Board’s real goal: to bolster its market share against its increasingly strong test rival ACT.
Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), which has long questioned the value of standardized college entrance exams, said the recent SAT changes and the Khan tutorials are “a small step forward.” He said the Khan program has good materials that align well with the SAT, but he said it is unlikely to have a strong impact across wide populations.
“For Khan to work well, it takes an extraordinary amount of self-discipline by a teenager to sit down, do the drills, work out the problems and take multiple practice tests,” Schaeffer said, adding that students who can afford private tutors or commercial classes still will keep the advantage of supervision. Overall, he described the Khan-SAT partnership as “mainly a way to rehabilitate the College Board’s image.”
The Official SAT Practice includes four full-length practice tests, thousands of problems and 150 videos and other resources, officials said. In interviews around California, some students complained that the written explanations in response to wrong answers were difficult to understand, yet many said they found the videos very helpful.
To make the Khan program more accessible and to provide more supervision, the College Board is working with school districts such as Long Beach and with various charter operators, such as Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, as well as providing the program at Boys and Girls Clubs around the country. It also offers mobile apps for smart phones.
At Millikan High School in Long Beach, veteran English teacher James Hutchinson praised the Khan-SAT website as “an excellent tool,” particularly for the ways it identifies students’ weaknesses and drills them to improve. While nothing can replace personal tutoring, the videos “are getting as close as they can,” he said. He is assigning its SAT prep exercises to his classes. Without such prodding, teens alone at home “may practice but it’s not soon enough. It’s too little, too late.”
Millikan junior Karina Barrera took the SAT in March without much reliance on the Khan program. Then she began to use it more for re-taking the test in April under a special Long Beach test session; she even practiced on her smart phone while on a bus tour of northern California colleges. As a result, “I felt a lot better about it,” said Barrera, who hopes to be a pre-med science major at a UC or Stanford University. But she said that many friends at other schools are not aware or don’t know it is free.
College Board officials say surveys indicate that Khan is cutting into the number of students paying for commercial test prep. Prep firms, which report much work adapting their classes to the new SAT, dispute that. But clearly the Khan free site is causing industry waves.
The ACT and Kaplan Test Prep this week announced their own partnership on an online prep program available this fall that will cost just $200 and include access to some live online teaching sessions. Low-income students who qualified for fee waivers for taking the ACT – 700,000 did so last year – will be able to access the new tutorials for free.
Kaplan SAT courses with live, in-person teachers range in price from $749 for classroom sessions to $3,799 for one-on-one tutors. Lee Weiss, Kaplan Test Prep’s vice president of college admission programs, said enrollments are up for both SAT and ACT classes this spring. While Khan is providing “good quality practice,” he said, “live teaching makes a big difference.”
At Princeton Review, SAT and ACT Content director Jonathan Chiu said enrollments of students preparing for the March exam were down slightly – not because of Khan but because high school counselors advised students to wait for later tests after any bugs were fixed. Enrollment is higher for later in the spring, he said. Princeton Review packages of in-person and online classes range in cost from $599 to $1,599. Chiu welcomed Khan to the field but said many students still wanted and needed “real in-person guidance.”
At Khan’s Mountain View headquarters, Elizabeth Slavitt, vice president of learner strategy and operations, said the SAT website will be revised over time in response to test scores and that material already is being added in algebra and reading essays. The goal from the start, she said, is not just to create a free, accessible prep but to “provide the best SAT prep that just happens to be free.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that national, state and ethnic average scores of the latest SAT would be released publicly next month. College Board officials now say that only individual scores will be given to students and colleges and that the wider group averages will be released later.