No! No! No! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
Unless you're a second semester junior the time to prepare for the SAT is later--possibly never--depending on a few particulars.
Let's examine the arguments in favor of preparing for the SAT before refuting them one by one.
"I have to prepare for the SAT now," says Katie, a sophomore in high school. (1) "All my friends are preparing," she continued. (2) "I need a good score to get in to my first choice college. (3) All the scholarships depend on good scores and (4) the person at the test prep place (5) assured me that my scores will go up with preparation and that (6) top colleges are impressed by National Merit Scholars. " Not stopping for breath, Katie said "(7) If I don't prepare my scores won't go up. And (8) PSATs are like SATs. (9) I have a friend who took a course whose scores went up over 200 points! (10) I better prepare now!"
Bless Katie's heart, she is as wrong as wrong can be about each and every bit of her argument. It's easy to get caught up in this web of falsehood, but I hope you'll agree that the truth is not only more believeable, but a lot more enjoyable as well.
1) "All my friends are preparing."
Katie, all your friends may be experimenting with drugs and having babies at age 15 but that doesn't mean that either of these activities is in their long term interest. Preparing for standardized tests as a sophomore is almost never a good idea.
2) "I need a good score to get into my first choice college." Maybe. Maybe not. The vast majority of accredited colleges and universities in this country admit virtually every qualified applicant. At the few colleges where scores are important, they're probably a lot less important than you think. Yes, it's true that many very selective colleges admit mostly students with high scores. But it's also true that these same colleges admit mostly students with straight A grades and significant commitments to extra-curricular activities. Unles Katie is 6' 2" tall and can make a 14-foot fade away jumper, she's going to need more than just good scores to get in to those super selective schools.
3) "All the scholarships depend on good scores."
Wrong again. All the scholarships depend on need. (OK, almost all.) A few scholarships depend on high scores. The vast majority of money given out to finance education in the United States is based on the income, assets and other financial data of the family.
4) "The person at the test prep place assured me that..."
Katie, Katie, Katie.
The person at the test prep place whose job it is to sell test prep courses? The person at the test prep place whose livelihood depends only on her ability to convince children and their families to take test prep courses? The person at the test prep place who will be fired if she doesn't get more kids in test prep courses this year than last year? The person at the test prep place who cold calls my house at dinner time trying to convince me that my children need to take a test prep course?
Katie, do you think the person at the test prep place might have an agenda? I do. I think she'd try to assure you of anything to get you to sign up for and pay money to take the prep course.
5) "The person at the test prep place assured me that my scores will go up with preparation."
Then the person at the test prep place lied.
Think about it. The scores of some students go up. And the scores of some students don't. Before you believe any "data" about score improvements, ask the following simple questions:
Does the data involve all students whom you taught? Are the score improvements a genuine average? What about students who didn't show up to all the classes? What about students who didn't do all the homework? What about students who were unmotivated and dropped the class?
Would your intervention work with all students or just students who take the test prep classes? I'm thinking these students--those who take classes--might be different from students who don't. They might be wealthier; they might be more motivated; they might--and here's one to think about--be students whose scores were lower than they expected them to be.
And here's a super sneaky scam to watch out for: Score improvements are based on a test given at the test prep place (the pre-test) and the actual SAT (the post test.) Do you think the pre-test might be a tad harder than an actual SAT? So that the "improvement" will be more pronounced? So do I.
6) "Top Colleges are impressed by National Merit Scholarship Finalists"
Yes, Katie, indeed they are. Top Colleges are Also Impressed with kids who build nuclear reactors in their basements and kids who wiggle their ears. (OK, more impressed with the science guy.) The question is whether or not Katie is going to be the one to improve her score up to where she'll be a national merit scholar. And here's the bad news: National Merit is based on a percentile. The percentile varies from state to state, but it's a percentile none-the-less. As Alfie Kohn points out, the SAT doesn't measure what you know; it measures what you know in relation to other kids. It's not a test, it's a competition. Garrison Keilor is trying to make us smile when he says that all kids in Lake Wobegon are above average. Katie, are you going to be one of the top two percent in your state? Because not every student can be in the top two percent. In fact (and stop me if you've already figured this out) only two kids in a hundred can be.
7) "If I don't prepare for the tests, my scores won't go up."
No. If you don't learn the material for the test, you're scores won't go up. But suggesting that the only way to learn the material for the test is to take an expensive test prep course is ludicrous. You know the Pythagorean Theorem? There's a reason it's called the Pythagorean Theorem. The reason is that this guy, by the name of Pythagoras, came up with it. Last I heard, Pythagoras wasn't working for a test prep firm.
Some of the material on the SAT is learned in school. Some of it can be learned by reading a good book or by paying attention in math class. Some score improvements are developmental, that is, they come with time and maturity.
Remember the last time you had a cold? Your mom gave you some medicine and your cold went away in seven days. Then that other time you had a cold and you didn't take any medicine and the cold lasted a week? Some of the score improvements happen without taking a course.
8) "PSATs are like SATs"
PSATs are like SATs in the way they're scored, yes. A 57 on the PSAT has a great deal in common with a 570 on the SAT. But here's how the PSAT and the SAT are different: Colleges never see your PSAT scores. Why would you prepare for a test that no one will ever see?
9) "I have a friend who took a course and her score went up over 200 points."
Yes, and I have a student who scratched his nose and his score went up over 200 points also. And another student whose score went up over 200 points after she joined the cross country team. Assigning a cause to events that happen about the same time is about as big a mistake as you can make. The events might be related. But they might not. I have another friend who goes out in the middle of the street every night and blows his "tiger whistle." He's convinced that his "tiger whistle" keeps the tigers away from his neighborhood. "See?" he says. "No tigers." I am less sure that it's the tiger whistle that keeps his neighborhood free of tigers. I think there are no tigers in his neighborhood because Katie took a test prep course.
10) "I better prepare now."
No. If you must prepare, do so after your junior year PSAT scores come back. There will be plenty of time then. Prepare in January to take the SAT in March or May of your junior year. If you still feel--after reading the discussion above--that you have to prepare for the exam, take a course or some individual lessons starting in January.