Duke TIP

Should 7th Graders Take SAT or ACT Prep Courses?

June 22, 2006

Qualifying for a seventh-grade talent search, such as the one offered by Duke University or Johns Hopkins University, is a distinct honor. At the same time, taking either the SAT or the ACT—tests designed for college-bound high school students—at the age of 12 or 13 can be daunting and anxiety-provoking for both student and parent.

Parents of seventh-graders frequently ask whether it is beneficial for their child to take an SAT or ACT prep course. Review courses such as those offered by Kaplan and the Princeton Review promise higher scores by providing test-taking strategies, familiarity with the tests, practice tests, and diagnostic feedback.

At first blush, it’s hard not to be impressed by these courses. Besides, who wouldn’t want to give their child a competitive edge? For students applying to college, that’s just what test prep courses do, and few downsides exist for high school students. However, the risk to seventh-graders is great. Let me offer two reasons.

First, college-bound high school students take test prep courses to raise their SAT or ACT scores. Higher scores may enable them to qualify for scholarships or to get into more competitive colleges. Seventh-grade talent search students, however, take college entrance exams because their higher ceiling provides an accurate assessment of their academic abilities. The test results should be used to help the student, the parent, and educators plan more effectively to meet the student’s educational needs. Raising test scores with a prep course defeats the purpose of out-of-level testing.

Second, college entrance exams are high-stakes tests, and the intensive nature of test prep courses often makes college-bound students anxious. Seventh-graders should not approach the SAT or ACT feeling the same kind of anxiety. For them, the SAT or ACT should be simply an enjoyable challenge.

In general, therefore, I do not recommend test prep courses to Duke’s talent search participants. I do suggest that they take the sample test in the SAT or ACT booklet and, if they are still anxious about the test, that they buy one of the popular prep books available in most bookstores. I welcome your opinions or comments.

—Steven I. Pfeiffer, PhD