The price of standardized testing

The expenses of ACT and SAT prep classes may benefit wealthier students.


Junior Adie Zahner flips through an SAT practice test Nov. 6. Zahner participated in SAT math and English prep courses through STA. photo illustration by Lily Hart

by Katie Massman, Twitter editor

As senior Sydney Lystad sits to retake the ACT test, she is nervous yet confident that she is ready for it. After long hours of studying and study sessions with a tutor, she knows she has done everything she could to prepare. 

“It was very reassuring to know I had prepared as much as I did,” Lystad said. “I think it definitely paid off.”

Both the SAT and the ACT are nationally administered, standardized tests that help schools evaluate students’ applications and readiness for college courses. Especially at STA, it is common for students to spend time and money beforehand preparing for these tests in order to have the best shot at their college of choice. 

However, each standardized test costs roughly around $50, and classes and tutors can be as expensive as $600 or more. Data collected by the College Board a few years ago found the average ACT score for students with a family income of $8,000 or higher was 23.6. The average for students with an income of less than $80,000 was 19.5.

As this income-based score gap widens, more organizations are looking into the possible unfairness of this system. FairTest, a non-profit, works to end the flaws of standardized testing and ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair, valid and educationally beneficial. Public Education Director of FairTest Robert Schaeffer strongly believes that income is a big factor in standardized test scores.

“Both the SAT and ACT are not very good predictors of how well you will do in college, but they’re pretty good measures of accumulated opportunity,” Schaeffer said.

Schaeffer accredits the higher scores to the fact that students from higher income families have many more opportunities for extra help.

 “[Many kids who get higher scores] have had the opportunity to go to a good school, grew up in homes where there are lots of books and an academic environment, get involved in summer programs that help them grow intellectually and even have their parents essentially buy them entire scores by paying for intensive test prep,” Schaeffer said.  

He emphasizes just how expensive prep can be and how much they can benefit a student.

“[Wealthier families] can spend $1,000 and see scores increase by 150 points or more, or spend $10,000-100,000, as some families do, to boost their scores by evermore,” Schaeffer said. “It’s definitely not a level playing field when financial resources can be used to obtain higher scores.”

However, expensive test prep is not the only way to prepare for standardized tests. The first thing STA college counselor Abigail Jelavich recommends to students who want to raise their score is not to enroll in a class but rather look at options that are free of charge. Companies like Khan Academy and Kaplan have recently began offering test prep that may be more easily accessible for students who may not be able to readily spend the money on classes or tutors.

“That’s one thing I want to stress, or would hope that is being stressed is yes, you could obviously spend money on test prep if you have the money and the means to, but there are many free resources online that also help with exams,” Jelavich said.

While there are prep options available online, Lystad believes students may not receive the same personalized, intimate connection they would if they had a tutor. 

“I think having a tutor improved my score more than online test prep would have because it was good one-on-one time to practice specifically what I needed to work on,” Lystad said.

Besides increasing access to test prep, Schaeffer emphasizes that colleges are overall more conscious that a test score is the result of many different factors.

“This year, the college board has tried to encourage colleges to look at test scores in context because they know that a 650 in a wealthy suburb is not the same thing as a 650 obtained by a kid who went to an inner city high school, or to school on a Native American reservation, etc,” Schaeffer said, “The numbers are the same but they mean something different.”