Can an app change the way students prepare for college admissions?
Dan Driscoll was frustrated with the SATs.
He had been running City Football Club, a nonprofit traveling soccer program for middle and high school students in his hometown of Washington, D.C., for a few years. By most accounts, the free program was successful. Some 250 kids participated on a regular basis and twice as many showed up for its annual camp each summer. In order to join, kids had to sign up for SAT tutoring and college counseling, the goal being to use soccer as a catalyst for getting diverse group into college.
‟It was common to have eleven kids on the field at any one time and not a single one of them was born in the same country,” Driscoll noted, adding that many of the kids came from low-income families.
Driscoll was seeing visible results. Through City Football Club, students were receiving weekly tutoring sessions, improving their SAT scores, and in many cases, heading off to college.
“We were helping kids who had no college options get into good schools,” he said, “but the problem was that none of it was scalable.”
Teaching SAT prep classes to 10 kids at a time was difficult enough given the program’s limited resources. Giving the same opportunity to every high school student who wanted it was practically impossible.
Driscoll put the problem on the back-burner, which is where it stayed until he started going through the process of applying to business school.
‟I really enjoyed studying for the GMAT [business school entrance exam], weirdly enough. But I didn’t like studying from a book, I liked studying from computer programs,” he said. ‟I thought if we could create something that was computer-based and computer adaptive, we could make something that any kid could use. I thought about this for a couple years, and then, after I met one of the founders of [the free, online computer programming training tool] Code Academy last spring, I realized a Code Academy for the SAT was the solution.”
Driscoll called the resulting startup Prepify. Developed during a social responsibility class at the University of Texas Mccombs School of Business and built in conjunction with a team of developers from the Austin, Texas-based coding boot camp MakerSquare, Prepify’s a free, cloud-based software program that offers lessons in how to take standardized college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT.
While there are similar programs already out there, most notably Number2 and INeedAPencil, Prepify differentiates itself by adapting to students’ progress in real time. If someone taking a Prepify lesson gets a question correct, it will then show him or her a more a difficult question. But, if the test-taker gets something wrong, the user will be directed back to more remedial work.
Driscoll has personally seen his SAT tutoring techniques boost student scores by an average of up to 100 points on each of the test's three sections. The lessons that created that score growth are the ones on which Prepify is based.
A 300-point improvement is a pretty big deal. An analysis by National Center For Fair and Open Testing found the average gap in SAT scores between students from families in the lowest income bracket ($0—$20,000 per year) and the highest income bracket ($200,000-plus per year) was 388 points. If Prepify’s results hold on a larger scale, it means that a completely free program has the potential to wipe away more than half of the advantage privileged students have over their less fortunate contemporaries when it comes to standardized testing.
‟The main things I saw keeping smarts kids out of good colleges was their SAT scores,” Driscoll said. ‟We had all these kids with great grades, but they just couldn’t hit the numbers they needed on the SAT.”
It’s a phenomenon that Tamara Siler, senior associate director in the admissions office at Rice University in Houston, sees all too often. “At times we do see a disconnect between grades and SAT scores, especially in the math and science,” Siler explained. ‟There’s a often huge inequality in the level of teaching in these areas.”
“It’s also about building a level of confidence so that students feel they can succeed on the test,” she added, recommending that all students take the SAT or ACT at least once before it really matters just to familiarize themselves with the test. ‟Some students are only seeing the test for the first time when they take it at the beginning of their senior year.”
A study by a team of sociologists at Ohio State and Emory universities found SAT test prep tools typically advantage students from wealthier background over their less well-off classmates. The longitudinal study, which tracked 10,000 students over the course of 12 years, found that about half of the kids who took the SAT used a test prep book, which is the least effective method in boosting scores. Roughly 18 percent took a school-based prep class, 11 percent attended a private class, and 7 percent utilized a private tutor. Private one-on-one tutoring turned out to be the best way to increase performance, but such classes were prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest students.
Colin Gruenwald, director of SAT and ACT programs for test prep giant Kaplan, argues that instead of viewing the quality of different test prep options as a rigid hierarchy, students should instead think about what works best for them. Gruenwald noted that students’ score improvements can vary significantly, but most of that variance happens not between different types of test preparation options but on what each student is trying to achieve and how much time and energy is invested in the program.
‟Different student have very different learning styles,” he explained. ‟Some students do well in a one-on-one setting, but others may find that intimidating or it might not fit into their busy schedules. They may do better in a self-directed program in a classroom setting with other students.”
Gruenwald added that Kaplan has long offered some of its test prep services for free—namely, practice tests and seminars on subjects some students may find difficult—and many of these resources are available online.
While the core of Prepify’s mission is a noble one, and Driscoll insists that the team behind the company has vowed to reinvest all profits back into the operation, Prepify is notably a for-profit operation. That distinction allows the company to take on venture capital money and scale up more quickly, but it also means that Prepify is going to have to generate revenue to survive instead of relying on traditional sources of nonprofit funding, like foundational grants.
One of the ways Prepify plans on monetizing its service is by partnering with advertisers and offering students rewards for improving their scores—a $5 gift certificate to someplace like Starbucks if someone boosts their score on the math section by 50 points, for example.
Prepify also plans to generate revenue through the creation of an individualized dashboard showing student progress. Users can chose to opt-in to a program where they share the information on their dashboard with colleges.
It can be difficult for admissions officers at top-tier universities to recruit students from low-income public schools because competitive candidates are often few and far between. Driscoll said he’s spoken with officials at a handful of colleges who said they would be willing to be pay handsomely for these types of leads.
Facilitating touches between elite universities and top students from low-income backgrounds is crucial. As demonstrated in a groundbreaking study released by professors at Harvard and Stanford released earlier this year, “the vast majority of low-income high achievers do not apply to any selective college. This is despite the fact that selective institutions typically cost them less, owing to generous financial aid, than the two-year and nonselective four-year institutions to which they actually apply.
“Moreover, low-income high achievers have no reason to believe they will fail at selective institutions since those who do apply are admitted and graduate at high rates.”
The study adds that many low-income students—‟despite being intelligent, literate, and on colleges’ search lists (that is, the lists to which selective colleges mail brochures)”—often lack critical information or the requisite push of encouragement to even apply.
“If you get an email from some a college saying, ‘Wow, you boosted score from a 500 to a 680 in math, if you can just push another 20-30 points we’d love to have you come out for a visit.’ That’s a huge boost of confidence and a challenge,” Driscoll said. ‟You’ll be super loyal to that school for saying, ‘Hey, I like you. You should apply.”
Prepify expects to have its online SAT prep program ready for public consumption when the next school year begins in the fall.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mentioned student tests of Prepify. Those tests were conducted in person, and Prepify's software was built around them.
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