May 19, 2014

Teaching for the Test, Part II: The Inequality Industry

This is the second part of a series about Standardized Testing in the United States. The first part looked at the history of the SAT, and its origins in Army intelligence testing and scientific eugenics.

Source: College Board / New York Times

In between writing this series, the College Board announced a major overhaul of the SAT, in light of criticisms that the test measured knowledge of obscure and arcane vocabulary, gave high scores to inconhesive essays that used such vocabulary, and functioned more as a predictor of parents' income than intelligence. The New York Times has an in-depth report about the redesign; NPR has a story about how students that enroll in test-optional colleges (where the SAT or ACT is optional for admission) perform as well as students who take the tests - and that high school grades are often a better predictor of college success than performance on standardized exams.

In particular, the College Board will be collaborating with Khan Academy to provide test preparation for the new SAT, online and for free, as a direct response to the inequality of test preparation. I have some experience with the test prep industry as a teacher and tutor, and I eagerly look forward to the demise of these often deceptive and predatory businesses. Here's my story...

The most notable test preparation companies include Kaplan and The Princeton Review (no association with Princeton University, although connotation is certainly intended); smaller companies like Revolution Prep have adapted the model or introduced their own version of test prep. In-person classes usually start at $1000, not including additional 1-on-1 tutoring fees, which may range from $100-200 per hour. In a paper on exam preparation, Derek Briggs notes these monetary costs, but also explains the "opportunity cost" of test prep: time spent on preparing for a standardized exam that could better prepare students for college - preparing college applications or performing well on high school courses.

My background was in teaching computers and art to elementary and middle school students. When I was looking for tutoring work, I initially was open to tutor English and writing, but I found few opportunities. The big money, apparently, is in test prep tutoring and teaching. I had already taken the GRE but wasn't familiar with any of the tests. I was surprised at the sheer volume of exams: in addition to the familiar SAT and ACT, there's the SSAT for secondary schools, the ISEE for independent schools, the SAT subject tests, and much more at the graduate level.

I ended up following some equally lost applicants and found the center: a few classrooms connected by a thin hallway, with mass printed textbooks in unopened boxes cluttering the corridor and overfilling the dirty bathroom.

Briggs also found that coaching for exams only produced, on average, an improvement of 30 points on the SAT and 1.5-2 points on the ACT. Briggs went further and found that the majority of admissions counselors believe this increase would have "little or no impact on a student's likelihood of admission." This data is clearly in contradiction to the aggressive and deceptive advertising strategies of test prep companies who note that "90% of our SAT students get into one of their top choice schools" (Princeton Review) or "Your SAT score is considered the 2nd most important factor in the college admissions process" (Kaplan). In fact, a company I worked for had to change its money back guarantee from one based on score improvement to mere satisfaction - even then, students report difficulty of getting refunded for courses that were ineffective, unengaging, and made little difference in their actual scores.

After submitting an online application, I was invited for a teaching demonstration. I had trouble finding the test prep center - later I would discover that many of these centers are rented for cheap and overfilled with students. I ended up following some equally lost applicants and found the center: a few classrooms connected by a thin hallway, with mass printed textbooks in unopened boxes cluttering the corridor and overfilling the dirty bathroom. With less than a dozen potential teachers, it already seemed crowded: I couldn't imagine upwards of twenty-five high school students in the same space.

Half of the interview was a teaching demo, and the other half was spent taking excerpts of a practice test. I value teaching demos: after teaching for a few years, I realized that conducting a class involved a unique bundle of skills which can be difficult to transmit. The test prep company was looking for people who already had these skills yet were willing to conform to their packaged curriculum. I thought some of the teaching demos went well, while others were disastrous: I was surprised to see nearly all of the applicants, the skilled and unskilled, in the following training session. Then again, the high season for some of the biggest standardized tests, particularly SAT and ACT, was upcoming.

The company paid competitive rates for teaching, but only offered minimum wage for the training. On the first session we were reprimanded for not watching online videos before attending, which we were never told about: apparently the core of the training involved watching hours of videos of "guru" teachers from the headquarters demonstrate how to deliver the packaged curriculum. As it turns out, these were the models that our trainers aspired to be, and wanted us to emulate as well. The head trainer would often name drop these gurus, as if we knew who they were or would be impressed if we were: "I was just on the phone with Jim suggesting a revision to the demonstration of this algebra problem." She had quite a presence during training, and was able to scare everyone into preparing for lessons: we were constantly reminded that at any point someone could be cut, and denied the part-time job they had already invested weeks of their time to. Tears or breakdowns while teaching was common. This wasn't teacher training: this was more like a bad reality show.

I was reprimanded for creating my own metaphor, and yelled at for the worst of infractions: touching the board.

At the same time, I took another training course for another standardized test. This training was mainly for teachers already working for the company. Here I experienced a completely different environment than my "novice" training: there was no threat of firing, no scare tactics. These were tutors trying to pick up some more hours, not compete with each other for jobs. Here I got a better picture of the company: its initial trainings are strenuous and intensive because, once hired, its tutors are never observed, rarely evaluated, and almost never get fired. They simply fade away when they stop regularly teaching.

But back to the reality show: as other potential teachers actually dropped out or were dropped, the remnants put everything into preparation. This wasn't teaching, this was acting: we were rated based on how much we stuck to script and modeled the guru videos. I was reprimanded for creating my own metaphor, and yelled at for the worst of infractions: touching the board. Undoubtedly this was the pet peeve of the head trainer, and had nothing to do with the company: she had warned us at the onset that nearly everything we could do would annoy her, and that the residue on our fingers would transform the whiteboards into unerasable and thus ineffective pedagogical props. My gestures while teaching, which involved my fingers grazing the dry erase board, prompted the trainer to yell out in the middle of my teaching demonstration, effectively derailing it by inducing a self-awareness that made me forget the script.

Look carefully, because this may be the future of education: a teacher-free curriculum offering adequately standardized learning for equally standard exams.

In retrospect, these training sessions were not only intended to instill the illusion that we would be monitored while working for the company, but that they would actually provide ongoing support. After training, we would truly be on our own, and the company support was only a fraction of the cut they were taking: local offices had too much work and staff turnover to help. Phone calls would always be transmitted through a corporate number: parents, students, and even their own teachers would never know which coast or what country they were talking to. The prepared curriculum was full of mistakes, and students would show up with different revisions, making group work nearly impossible. This is the company you teach for, not work for: the profits generated from cutting corners in salaries and benefits, office rentals converted into classrooms, curriculum, and online components were passed directly to the shareholders. Look carefully, because this may be the future of education: a teacher-free curriculum offering adequately standardized learning for equally standard exams.

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