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We examine how high school resources are linked to participation in forms of SAT prep; we also examine the impact of SAT prep on SAT scores and how it varies for students of different races. Students with more highly educated parents, more financial resources, and who attend schools with higher participation in AP courses are more likely to take more elite forms of test prep and obtain higher scores. However, not all students benefit equally from SAT prep; gains associated with SAT prep appear to be driven by East Asian American participation in private courses. Implications for equity are discussed.


Research on inequality and high schools often focuses on inequality within and between high schools. Different high schools may have markedly different access to resources such as college counselors and Advanced Placement offerings, or inequality may exist within a high school due to tracking or other forms of stratification (Engberg & Wolniak, 2010; McDonough, 1997; Solórzano & Ornelas, 2002). Less known is how high schools may influence differential access to resources outside of school that can influence postsecondary pathways. Naturally, high school plays a central role in a student’s educational experience, but it is also part of a broader ecosystem that includes students’ families, community, neighborhood, and supplementary educational resources.

One supplementary educational resource that is popular within certain communities is SAT or ACT preparation (hereafter abbreviated as “SAT prep”), which generally takes the form of SAT classes, tutors, or books. The SAT (formerly the “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” now known as just the SAT) [End Page 1] plays a critical gatekeeper role in the college admissions process, given that SAT or ACT scores are required for most institutions that are not open access (Briggs, 2009). However, students often enter the test with widely differing levels of exposure to the test. For instance, Deil-Amen and Tevis (2010) found that Black and Latino/a students at high poverty high schools in Chicago had little knowledge about the actual ACT, even though they had high educational aspirations. They had to rely on their school as the primary source of information regarding admissions tests. However, the schools did not provide accurate information, and students were unaware that there were study skills and test-taking strategies that one could learn in advance.

While some students are exposed to little knowledge about college admissions standardized tests, SAT prep gives participants access to such test-taking strategies, promoting socialization into the world of standardized tests (Briggs, 2009; McDonough, 1997; Park, 2012; Zhou & Kim, 2006). SAT prep may be delivered through multiple formats, such as a course run through a business or private tutoring. In the late 20th century, businesses such as Kaplan and the Princeton Review began to cater to the growing demand for such services, especially among more affluent families. This trend paralleled the rise of other privately run college-preparation services, such as private college counseling (McDonough, 1997). More recently, scholars have documented SAT prep services that specifically cater to the East Asian American (e.g., Chinese and Korean American) students in areas with high concentrations of such students (Byun & Park, 2012; Park, 2012; Zhou & Kim, 2006). These businesses are typically mainstays of ethnic economies, accompanying other businesses that cater to the ethnic community and facilitate the flow of social capital (Park, 2012; Zhou & Kim, 2006).

While previous studies have examined how individual students’ characteristics are associated with SAT prep (for instance, that wealthier students are more likely to take SAT prep), research has focused less on the role of the high school environment and how it might inform participation in SAT prep. Doing so is critical to understanding how between-school variability and inequality may stratify participation in out of school resources, which in turn may reinforce inequality. Instead of viewing the two realms as distinct, this study seeks to investigate the link between school-based and out of school-based resources. It will also add to knowledge of how high schools influence the stratification of educational opportunity. Lastly, it will extend the research on SAT prep to examine influences beyond individual students’ attributes (e.g., race/ethnicity, parental education) and into the institutional contexts that they inhabit; further, it will clarify whether the relationship between individual-level variables (race/ethnicity, income) persist when high school contexts are controlled for, and how these patterns may vary between groups. Thus, the purpose of this study is to understand what variables related to students and high schools are associated with participation in various forms [End Page 2] of SAT preparation and whether test prep is linked to actual SAT score, both overall and by race/ethnicity. This study aims to contribute to the body of research examining how high schools shape students’ pathways to college, including supplementary educational resources.

Background and Literature

In the following section we review past studies on SAT prep. Briggs (Briggs, 2001, 2009; Domingue & Briggs, 2009) has done the greatest amount of research on SAT prep and has found that gains on the SAT due to preparation are quite modest, in the arena of 10 to 20 points for math, and 5 to 10 points for verbal. He notes that commercial test prep services commonly trumpet that their services can raise scores in the realm of 100 to 300 points, but these large gains are likely more explained by self-selection in who takes SAT prep. Test prep appears to be most effective for students taking rigorous academic coursework and students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds (Domingue & Briggs, 2009). In a randomized controlled study of College Possible, an outreach program for low-income students that includes extensive test prep, treatment group participants did not have significantly higher ACT scores than the control group of non-participants (Avery, 2013). However, it is possible that non-participants were able to access other forms of test preparation.

A consistent finding across studies is that participation in SAT prep (and what kind of SAT prep), differs by various demographic traits. Among a qualitative study of Korean Americans, Lew (2006) observed that more affluent families were more likely to take SAT prep, although other studies have found a surprisingly high rate of participation by lower-income Korean American students (Park, 2012; Teranishi, Ceja, antonio, Allen, & McDonough, 2004). In an examination of the 1988 National Educational Longitudinal Survey, Buchmann, Condron, and Roscigno (2010) found that students with higher family incomes were significantly more likely to take SAT prep via a private course (through a business) or private tutor, versus taking it through a book or high school course. Asian Americans were more likely than Whites to take a private course, Black students were more likely than White students to take a high school-based course, private course, or have a private tutor, and females were more likely than males to take any SAT prep. Students whose parents encouraged them to prepare for the SAT and talked more frequently about the SAT were more likely to take test prep. They uncovered some modest evidence regarding the effect of SAT prep: Those who took higher levels of SAT prep (the highest level being coded as using a private tutor and/or in combination with other forms of test prep) had higher SAT scores and were more likely to attend highly selective institutions, even when a variety of background variables, such as having college discussions with parents and [End Page 3] family income, were controlled. While comprehensive in scope, Buchmann et al.’s study did not include variables related to high school context, such as institutional control (private/public), number of Advanced Placement classes offered, or school size.

Byun and Park (2012) extended Buchmann et al. ’s (2010) work by focusing on SAT participation specifically for East (Korean, Chinese, and Japanese) Asian Americans, using the Educational Longitudinal Survey (ELS) of 2002 to 2006 to compare the likelihood of participation in both commercial SAT prep courses versus private tutoring. They found that East Asian Americans were significantly more likely to take a prep course than other (South, Southeast, and Filipino) Asian Americans, as well as White and Latino/a students. However East Asian Americans were not more likely to receive private SAT tutoring than other groups once background characteristics were controlled for. Byun and Park’s (2012) study had two unique foci. First, they were interested in the relationship between prior achievement and taking a SAT prep course or receiving private tutoring for different racial/ethnic groups, testing the hypothesis that higher prior achievement would actually predict taking SAT prep for East Asian Americans (i.e., instead of SAT prep being a remedial measure). Prior achievement did predict taking a commercial SAT prep class for both East and Other Asian American students and did not for White, Black, and Latino/a students. Prior achievement did not predict private tutoring for either Asian American group, but White, Black, and Latino/a students with lower prior achievement were more likely to receive private SAT tutoring.

Lastly, the authors tested the relationship between forms of preparation and SAT scores to see if East Asian American students yield particular benefits from SAT prep due to several factors, such as the abundance of SAT prep centers that specifically cater to the ethnic community in major metropolitan areas and greater familiarity with the cram-style techniques used by such businesses. East Asian Americans were the only group where any type of SAT coaching was significantly related to score outcomes; taking a commercial SAT prep course was a positive predictor of SAT score for this group. While Buchmann et al. (2010) found modest but significant effects associated with forms of SAT prep (high school course, private course, or private tutoring) on SAT scores for all students in the NELS sample, Byun and Park (2012) found different results when disaggregating by race/ethnicity. In their study, only one form of SAT prep (a private commercial course) was associated with higher scores, and only for East Asian Americans.

Park’s (2012) work further illuminates the role of SAT prep among East Asian Americans. Analyzing data from the 1997 Freshman Survey (UCLA Higher Education Research Institute), descriptive statistics showed that low-income ($25,000 or less) Korean Americans had a surprisingly high rate of taking SAT prep, 46.7% of the Korean American sample. While low-income [End Page 4] Chinese Americans also had a relatively high rate of taking SAT prep (31.8%); the gap between low- and higher-income Chinese American students was more than double the gap between low and higher-income Korean Americans (19.4 percentage point gap versus 8.7 percentage point gap). Religiosity was positive linked to SAT preparation for Korean Americans, while being low-income and lacking citizenship were negatively related for Chinese Americans.

Altogether studies show how a myriad of complex factors, including socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, citizenship, prior achievement, and religiosity are related to taking SAT prep. However, no study to date has focused on how high school characteristics may be related to participation in such activities. Previous qualitative studies (McDonough, 1997) have elucidated how high schools mediate access to college-going resources such as SAT prep, but no study has used a national dataset to focus specifically on aspects of the high school and high school environment that may facilitate participation, leaving unanswered questions on the link between high schools and out of school supplemental resources that may affect educational equity. Additionally, further work is also needed to clarify the impact of SAT preparation on actual scores. Some studies have found associated gains (Buchmann et al., 2010), while others have found no gains (Avery, 2013) or significantly higher scores only for certain populations (Byun & Park, 2012). At a minimum, test prep provides students with some familiarity with the test and test-taking strategies, important socialization into the world of high-stakes standardized testing. Previous research has already established that in general, wealthier students are more likely to be able to access SAT prep, but we have little understanding of whether such access is facilitated only by individual students’ financial, cultural, and social capital, or whether high school contexts also play a role in stratifying participation in SAT prep.

Thus, this study seeks to examine how high school environments, in addition to students’ background characteristics, are related to participation in specific types of SAT prep (e.g., SAT prep via books versus a course or private tutor). It also seeks to understand whether participation in SAT prep is significantly linked to higher SAT scores when high school environments are held constant.

Theoretical Perspective

We use cultural capital as a theoretical construct to frame participation in SAT prep, and in particular, participation in more elite and expensive forms of SAT prep (private courses or private tutors). Cultural capital refers to the generational transference of resources, attitudes, or knowledge among the elite and privileged that perpetuates the reproduction of inequality in society (Bourdieu, 1986; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977). While enabled by material assets (e.g., money), such resources include behind the scenes knowledge about [End Page 5] how to leverage privilege to access scarce resources. In this paper, we view more elite forms of SAT prep as a relatively scarce resource that is enabled by privileged forms of capital at the individual and organizational levels, such as higher levels of parental education, higher socioeconomic status, and attending a high school with greater resources (e.g., Advanced Placement (AP) classes and lower counselor-to-student ratios).

As previous work shows, knowledge about how to navigate the complicated world of college-entrance exams does not come naturally to all students (Deil-Amen & Tevis, 2010). In more elite communities, knowledge about thfile:/S:/SBU/E%20Publishing/Public/Mayur/Fish%20Cutlet.jpege importance of standardized testing and understanding of the investment required to boost scores is part of the habitus. Habitus is the set of expectations, patterns, and assumptions ingrained since birth and linked to social class that make certain behaviors seem normal (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990). These dispositions and sensibilities gained through socialization into communities where certain behaviors and assumptions are regarded as normative and expected (McDonough, 1997). Students whose parents attended selective higher education institutions are likely privy to such socialization. While not necessarily elite, East Asian Americans may also often experience socialization into understandings about the importance of standardized testing due to the information sharing facilitated by social capital networks within the ethnic community (Park, 2012; Zhou & Kim, 2006).

Cultural capital has a cyclical and cumulative effect, wherein access to scarce resources and knowledge can open the door to additional scarce resources and knowledge, especially when accompanied by financial capital, giving a boost to the already privileged and furthering the gap between the haves and the have notes (Park & Eagan, 2011). Advantaged students may already have entry into a world that sensitizes them to the intricacies of how to apply to an elite institution, and this same set of dispositions and knowledge may attune them to the advantages that SAT prep can offer, opening up another resource that can advantage them in the college admissions process. Financial capital potentially enables such students to receive more expensive and scarce forms of test preparation, such as private tutoring.

A key mechanism of cultural capital is the concept of habitus. Students are influenced by their social class as individuals, but they also experience significant socialization in the organizations that they participate in day in and day out, the effect of an organizational habitus. McDonough defines organizational habitus as “the impact of a social class culture on individual behavior through an intermediate organization, in this case, the high school” (1997, p. 156). In this study’s context, organizational habitus refers to how socialization in high schools affects behaviors that students perceive as normal (e.g., for students to be seeking information about applying to college from teachers and guidance counselors). [End Page 6]

McDonough (1997) demonstrated how high schools dramatically influenced the amount of information that students had access to, which influenced their sense of possibility regarding the institutions to which they applied. At a small private high school, students received a great amount of individualized attention from school counselors who had relationships with college admissions officers, a stark contrast to the more generic resources offered by large public high schools. In other work, Park and Eagan (2011) found that high school resources such as the number of Advanced Placement courses offered were significantly related to students applying via early admissions programs, showing how high school contexts and resources have an independent effect on application patterns even when parental education and income are held constant. As Grodsky and Riegle-Crumb (2010) note, a higher percentage of students taking AP courses reflects “…the behavioral orientation of students attending each high school toward higher education… with higher rates of AP course-taking evidencing a stronger college-going culture” (p. 11).

Grodsky and Riegle-Crumb’s (2010) study of Texas high school students uncovered mixed findings related to organizational habitus. They tested several measures of organizational habitus on students’ college-going habitus (whether students always expected to go to college—indicative of college-going habitus, or made a conscious decision to do so). The measures were the percentage of students graduating from high school in four years, percentage of seniors planning to attend college, percentage of seniors taking AP courses, percentage of most recent graduates attending “elite” four-year public institutions, and percentage of graduates attending open access two-year institutions. Only the percentage of recent graduates attending elite four-year institutions had a positive effect on college-going habitus, and percentage of seniors taking AP courses had a positive effect on the probability of attending a four-year college.

Our study seeks to extend research on SAT prep, cultural capital, and organizational habitus. No quantitative analysis of SAT prep has focused on the role of high school resources and how they might facilitate participation, let alone more elite forms of participation. In this study, we conceptualize both individual and high school-related variables as reflecting individual-level cultural capital, hypothesizing that students who have higher levels of both forms of capital are more likely to participate in more elite forms of SAT prep. Further, we hypothesize that more elite forms of test prep will significantly predict higher SAT scores when other background and high school characteristics are controlled for, indicating the “pay off” of SAT prep itself as a form of cultural capital. Lastly, we hypothesize that individual and high school-related variables that reflect cultural capital (e.g., a higher percentage of students taking Advanced Placement classes) will be associated with higher SAT scores when all variables are held constant. [End Page 7]


Data and sample

Data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) through the administrations of the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS-2002) were utilized for this study. ELS-2002 consists of data collected from student, parent, and administrator surveys (e.g., family income comes from data reported through the parental questionnaire). As the focus of this study is on the influence of shadow education on ACT/SAT preparation and performance, the final analytic sample of 8,652 student respondents represents students in the initial data collection cohort (i.e., high school sophomores in base-year 2002) who reported in their senior year (i.e., first follow-up 2004) that they took the ACT/SAT. Data for all cases span both the base year and the first follow-up, and includes student, parent, and school data. SAT/ACT score information was provided by the College Board or ACT.

Outcome variables

The two dependent variables used in this study are highest level of test preparation and highest composite ACT/SAT score (i.e., if a student took the test multiple times, his or her highest combined score was used). Highest level of test preparation was derived from six items from the first follow-up survey that asked students to identify whether or not they used the following to prepare for the ACT/SAT: books, videos, computer software, high school course, private commercial course, and private tutoring. In ranking private tutoring as the highest level of test preparation, we use the same rank ordering as previous studies of SAT prep (Buchmann et al., 2010). An ordinal coding scheme was created with students who did not prepare for the ACT/SAT coded 0; students who prepared through books, videos, and/or computer software coded as 1; students who prepared through a high school course alone or in conjunction with books, videos, and/or software coded as 2; students who prepared through a private commercial course alone or in conjunction with a high school course and/or books, videos, and/or software coded as 3; and students who prepared through private tutoring alone or in conjunction with a high school and/or private commercial course and/or books, videos, and/or software coded as 4. Students who did not prepare for the ACT/SAT (i.e., the first category coded 0) served as the reference group. The original continuous-scale coding of the higher entrance exam composite in terms of SAT was maintained in the analysis.

Predictor variables

Variables drawn from multiple sources (e.g., student, parent, and administrator survey) served as predictor variables. Students’ race (White as reference group), gender (male as reference group), and native English language status (native English speaker as reference group) were converted into dummy coded variables. A derived variable captured students’ behavior in terms of from whom they have sought out college entrance information. [End Page 8] Students who did not go to either a teacher or counselor for college entrance information served as the reference group to students who went to a teacher or a counselor, and students who went to both a teacher and a counselor. Parental information included as predictor variables included a z-score conversion of family income and dummy coded variables of highest level of parent education. High school or less served as the reference group to some college, college degree, and masters/PhD/professional degree for highest level of parent education.

Data about students’ high schools included both z-score converted variables and dummy coded variables. A derived counselor to student ratio was converted to a z-score metric, as were school enrollment and percentage of student body enrolled in Advance Placement courses. Dummy coded predictors captured the region, urbanicity, and control of respondents’ high schools. Schools in the Northeast served as the reference group to schools in the South, Midwest, and West. Rural schools served as the reference to Urban and Suburban schools. Lastly, Catholic schools served as the reference for public and other private schools.

Control variables

To control for a student’s prior orientation towards college preparation, a number of variables were included as controls. A base year standardized math/reading test composite score converted to a z-score metric was included to control for prior achievement. Converted as well to a z-score metric were both student and parent expectations of how far the 10th grader would get in school and frequency of discussions students had with parents about preparing for the ACT/SAT and going to college. The final control variable was the base-year item of students’ plans to take the ACT/ SAT (with a student having no plans as the reference group).


Two regression approaches were utilized: multinomial logistic regression and generalized least squares regression. Both approaches are consistent with those used in previous studies (Buchmann et al., 2010; Byun & Park, 2012). The dependent variable in the multinomial logistic approach was the highest level of test preparation in the ordinal coding scheme, which allowed for analysis of the odds of using each type of preparation (book/video/software, high school course, private course, private tutoring) compared to no preparation. All predictors were simultaneously loaded into the model. The generalized least squares approach explored influences on variation in ACT/SAT test scores. In addition to the predictor variables, test preparation variables were included in these models in both the ordinal and dummy coding scheme. Predictor variables were loaded in three blocks: 1) student and parent predictors, 2) control variables, and 3) school predictors.

Additionally, the test of equality of B coefficients was used to examine differences between groups of students based on race/ethnicity for the model predicting SAT score. Even though a predictor is significant for one group but not another, it does not mean that the predictors operate differentially. [End Page 9] To determine if individual predictors are significantly different across groups, a test for the equality of regression coefficients was conducted to compare the B coefficients between six subgroups (White, Black, Hispanic/Latino, East Asian American, Other Asian, and Multiracial). The significance test utilized in this study is from the work of Paternoster, Brame, Mazerolle, and Piquiro (1998). Absolute values for Z that are greater than 1.96 (i.e., two-tail at α = .05) indicates a significant difference exists between the regression coefficients and the predictors operate differentially for the two groups (Paternoster et al., 1998).


As with any study, this study has some key limitations. Unfortunately we were not able to differentiate between variation within test prep categories (for instance, the cost of the private tutor or class) and did not have variables such as the number of hours spent preparing for the SAT. We were also limited to the variables already existing in the ELS dataset. Further, while we used the same rank-ordering used in previous studies of SAT prep, which ranked books and videos as the lowest level of preparation (and presumably most accessible/least elite) and private tutoring as the most exclusive form, we recognize that there may be exceptions to this reasoning; for instance, a student may be able to receive private tutoring pro bono. We recognize these limitations and the need for future research that may improve upon our analyses, as well as qualitative work that will further probe the issues raised by our work.


Table 1 presents the odds ratios for the predictors of highest level of test preparation. Female students had a higher likelihood than males in engaging in all four forms of test prep versus no test prep. Black students were more likely than White students to utilize all four forms of test preparation, while Asian American students were more likely the White students to only use a private course or private tutoring as the highest level of test preparation.

Discussing college plans and taking the SAT with parents were associated with higher rates of test prep in general. Students who discussed their college plans more often with their parents were more likely to take all forms of test prep except a private course, and discussing preparation for the ACT/SAT was associated with higher participation in all forms of test prep. The odds-ratio was strongest for private tutoring being the highest level of test preparation (versus no preparation). Family income was only associated with an increased likelihood of private course participation as the highest form of test prep, while having higher math/reading scores decreased the likelihood of participation in any form of test prep. Taking a private course or private tutoring as the highest level of test prep was related to the parents’ educational aspirations for their children in the 10th grade. Regarding actual [End Page 10]

Table 1. O R P H-L T P
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Table 1.

Odds Ratios Predicting Highest-Level of Test Preparation

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level of parents’ education, having a college degree was associated with a greater likelihood of participation in a high school or private course as the highest form of test prep, while having a parent with a graduate or other advanced degree was associated with the student taking a private course or receiving private tutoring.

While students who went to a counselor or teacher for college information were more likely to participate in only private tutoring as the highest level of test preparation, students who went to a counselor and a teacher (i.e., two sources of information) were more likely to have all four forms of test prep as the highest level than no preparation. Going to both a counselor and a teacher was most strongly associated with private tutoring as the highest level of test preparation. Regarding other high school characteristics, students enrolled in high schools with higher percentages of students in AP courses were significantly more likely to take a private course or have a private tutor than take no test prep. Urbanicity was non-significant, but students attending public high schools were significantly less likely than students attending Catholic high schools to prepare using a high school, a private course, and/ or or private tutoring.

Table 2 details the unstandardized coefficients predicting higher entrance exam composite in terms of SAT. Model 1 includes the ordinal coded highest level of test preparation while Model 2 includes the four dichotomous coded highest level of test preparation. Students whose parent(s) had a college degree or higher and students from more affluent families scored higher on entrance exams. Asian American students scored at least 20 points higher than White students. Students whose highest level of test preparation was a private course scored 11 points higher than students who did not prepare at all. Educational aspirations, the student planning to take the SAT or ACT, frequency of discussing SAT or ACT prep with parents, and parental educational aspirations were all associated with a higher SAT score. However, having more discussions of going to college was negatively associated with exam score. Students who attended schools in the Midwest or West compared to those in the Northeast scored higher on entrance exams. Those attending non-Catholic private schools scored higher than those attending Catholic schools, and those attending Catholic schools scored significantly higher than those attending public schools. Lastly, attending a school with a higher enrollment and larger percentage of the student body taking AP was associated with gains in exam scores.

The results of the test for equality of regression coefficients indicate that eight predictors operated differentially between groups for the model predicting SAT score. All but one of the eight (non-native English speaker) were also significant in the regression models predicting SAT score that utilized the entire sample. One predictor operated differentially between groups such [End Page 12]

Table 2. U C P SAT S
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Table 2.

Unstandardized Coefficients Predicting SAT Score

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that with every unit increase in the predictor, the change in the average value of the dependent variable increased more or decreased more for one group than the other. The other seven predictors had opposite influences for the two groups, such that the change in the dependent variable decreased for one group but increased for another group, with every unit increase in the predictor. Table 3 indicates the unstandardized beta coefficients for each of the groups. To allow for comparison with findings of analyses run on the full sample, Table 3 includes all of the variables found to be significant in one or both of the previously discussed models predicting SAT score. Table 4 summarizes the differential impact of the predictor between the groups compared.

For example, White, Other Asian, and Multiracial students whose parents have a graduate or other advanced degree all had higher SAT scores than their peers whose parents had a high school diploma or less. This predictor operated differentially for these three groups such that for White and Multiracial students, their scores increased by 29.215 and 3.019 points, respectively, whereas the score for Other Asian students increased by 78.239 points. In an example of opposing influences, for every unit increase in how often a Multiracial student discussed going to college with their parents, their SAT score increased by 20.441 whereas scores for White, Other Asian, and Black students decreased by 6.292, 13.944, and 14.617 points, respectively.


Overall, findings suggest that facets of the high school environment (e.g., higher school-wide participation in AP courses) are related to both participation in more elite forms of test prep and higher SAT scores, and that at least one type of preparation, participating in a private course, is associated with higher SAT scores, although only East Asian Americans appeared to benefit in the sub-group analysis. This is the first study to control for facets of the high school environment such as the role of AP courses and sources of college-going information. Some findings echo results of previous studies on predictors of SAT prep. In the subgroup analysis (see Table 3), East Asian Americans were the only group for whom a test prep format (private course) predicted a higher SAT score, consistent with Byun and Park’s (2012) analysis of ELS.

In Buchmann et al. (2010), family income was a predictor of taking a private course or receiving private tutoring, while income only predicted taking a private course in our analysis. Also, while in general parental education was non-significant in Buchmann’s study, in our study, having a parent with an advanced degree was associated with a higher likelihood of taking a private course or receiving private tutoring, and having a parent who attended college was also associated with taking a high school or private course. [End Page 14]

Table 3. B C S
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Table 3.

B Coefficients of Sub-groups

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Table 4. S S T E B C
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Table 4.

Summary of Significant Tests of Equality of B Coefficients

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Although we controlled for a similar set of variables as Buchmann, two differences are salient: Our data is more recent, and our analysis also controls for high school environmental variables. Findings reflect the cultural capital framework, where parents with advanced degrees are likely more attuned to the importance of the SAT in selective college admissions, and thus work to secure the advantage of a higher score for their children.

Other school-related predictors show a relationship between the outcome variables and high schools with higher percentages of students taking AP courses and higher enrollment. Students in larger high schools and schools with higher percentages of AP courses were more likely to participate in the most elite type of test prep (i.e., private tutoring), and both predictors are related to higher exam scores (6 points and 8 points, respectively). This finding adds further support to the high school functioning as organizational habitus. Previous work by Grodsky and Riegle-Crumb (2010) found that the percentage of students taking AP students was the main reflection of organizational habitus in influencing a college-going habitus, and our finding is consistent with theirs. Findings also reflect the cultural capital framework in that more affluent and educated parents may act strategically to make sure their children attend well-resourced schools, showing how both individual and organizational manifestations of cultural capital are related to participation in SAT prep. However, in the subgroup analysis, Whites were the only group for whom attending a high school with a higher percentage of students taking AP courses predicted higher SAT scores. It could be that for some other groups, the potential benefits of peer culture could be offset by the “school within a school” phenomenon, where resources like AP classes are restricted to a facet of the population and the rest of the school environment is notably less rigorous, a troubling trend since SAT prep may be more effective for students taking rigorous coursework (Domingue & Briggs, 2009).

Another variable not included in previous studies is from whom the student sought out college entrance information. In our study, when compared to students who talked to no one, the difference in test prep participation between those who talked to only a counselor or teacher and those who talked to both was significant. The former group of students was more likely to participate in the most elite form of test prep (i.e., private tutoring) but not other forms, while the latter was more likely to participate in all four forms of test prep. This difference could be explained by the simple idea that the more people a student speaks to about college entrance information the more varied perspectives and options he or she will receive. It also points to the roles of the counselor and teacher as gatekeepers to information (McDonough, 1997), and further underscores the role of the high school. It may be easier for students to receive more individual attention from teachers and counselors in certain high school settings, reflecting how cultural capital can manifest itself in high school via its organizational habitus (McDonough, 1997). [End Page 17]

Talking with a parent also increased the likelihood a student will participate in some forms of test prep. This behavior did not, however, benefit the student when it comes to achievement on the ACT/SAT – for every unit increase in the frequency of discussions a student had with parents about college, exam score decreased by 5 points. Subgroup analysis shows some variation, with Whites being the only group where such conversations were significantly related to a lower score. It could be speculated that students who speak more frequently with parents about college may feel more pressure to perform well in order to gain acceptance into an institution. This pressure potentially translates into a negative influence that consequently affects students’ performance on the gatekeeper to college admissions – the standardized test.

As mentioned earlier, Asian American and Black students were more likely than White students to participate in the various forms of test prep, over no prep at all. A closer examination of the magnitude of the increase in the odds of participation is worthwhile. When compared to White students the odds of participation in a private course or private tutoring increased multiplicatively by 168% and 64% respectively for Asian American students. The increase in odds for Black students ranged from 51% to 211% for all four forms of test prep, yet the GLS regression results indicate a 25-point lower exam score for Black students when compared to White students. Further research is warranted to examine what is missing between test prep and test taking for Black students. Cross-regression examination also shows that for the overall sample, students with high prior achievement were less likely to participate in any form of test prep but these same students achieved higher on the ACT/SAT exam score.

School control and geographic region, but not urbanicity, were also significantly related to differences in test preparation and test achievement. As comparisons continue to be drawn between poorer urban schools and better-funded suburban schools, an additional analysis comparing urban to suburban (instead of rural) would be beneficial. When compared to Catholic school students, public school students were less likely to participate in three of the four types of test prep and also achieved 17 points less on the ACT/SAT. Although students in the Northeast were more likely than students from all other regions to participate in test prep, students in the Midwest and West had higher test scores.

This finding points to a contradictory pattern for at least two groups—Black students and students from the Northeast—who take SAT prep at higher rates than their comparison group peers (White students and students from the Midwest/West), but have lower test scores. It presents a chicken and egg conundrum; are these students seeking out test prep because they likely would not score high on the SAT as is, and their comparatively lower scores are just a reflection of that? Alon (2010) notes that Black students who score [End Page 18] higher on the SAT are less likely to take test prep than lower scoring Black counterparts, and future studies should examine whether higher achieving Black students who do take SAT prep outscore high achieving Black non-prep participants. Byun and Park (2012) found that Asian Americans (East and Other) were the only group where higher past achievement was linked with SAT prep (taking a private course), while lower past achievement was related to private tutoring for White, Black, and Latino/a students. Like the current study, they also found that East Asian Americans were the only group where SAT prep (private course) significantly predicted a higher score.

Our findings raise important questions for future studies and policy around the SAT. In particular, when considering our findings in conjunction with Byun and Park (2012), it appears quite possible that existing gains on SAT scores associated with test prep via private courses that show up in the overall sample are driven by East Asian American students. Unlike Buchmann et al. (2010), we do not see associated gains with the ordinal-coded “highest test prep” variable (i.e., private tutoring), nor do we see gains associated with different forms of test prep other than taking a private class. Whether this difference is due to our additional controls of high school-related variables, the later dataset, or a combination of the two is uncertain. Buchman et al. state that “…returns to SAT preparation are relatively uniform across groups” (p. 452), but the in disaggregated analyses conducted by both ourselves and Byun and Park (2012), only East Asian Americans saw significant test preprelated gains associated with SAT prep, and only with a commercial private SAT course and not other forms of preparation. We ran additional analyses (not shown) by racial/ethnic subgroup, where East Asian Americans were the only group for which the odds-ratio for taking a private course as the highest level was significant. Given that taking a private course was the only positive predictor of a higher SAT score, like Byun and Park (2012), our findings suggest that East Asian American students are the primary drivers of existing benefits associated with SAT prep (via private courses). This finding is in need of additional research. In piecing together findings from these studies, our results suggest that there are key patterns in not only who is more likely to take SAT prep, but who benefits and through what means. However, there may be benefits associated with SAT prep within racial/ethnic groups for portions of the population that are less likely to take SAT prep—for instance, high achieving Black students—and future research is needed to uncover these patterns.


We predicted the following: 1) Students who have higher levels of cultural capital are more likely to participate in more elite forms of SAT prep; 2) More elite forms of test prep will significantly predict higher SAT scores [End Page 19] when other background and high school characteristics are controlled for; 3) Individual and high school-related variables that reflect cultural capital will be associated with higher SAT scores when all variables are held constant. Our findings support the idea that cultural capital, both at the individual and organizational (high school) levels, does indeed positively influence access to resources and student performance. Students who have more highly educated parents, have more financial resources, attend schools with higher participation in AP courses, and whose have parents who have high educational aspirations for them are not only more likely to participate in the more elite forms of test prep, they achieve higher scores on the SAT (combined 42 points). However, our hypothesis that more elite forms of test prep (private tutor) would predict higher SAT scores was not confirmed. The only form of that prep actually associated with higher SAT scores was participation in a private test prep course, which translated into an 11-point gain on the SAT when compared to students with no preparation, similar to findings by Briggs (2009). Further, consistent with Byun and Park (2012), East Asian American students were the only group where a form of test prep predicted a higher SAT score (about 50 points).

Our findings demonstrate how aspects of the high school environment—access to teachers and counselors and higher participation in AP courses—appear to affect access to out of school supplemental educational resources. Inequality does not exist only within and between high schools (Solórzano & Ornelas, 2002), but to some extent, high schools also stratify the resources that students seek out beyond the walls of the high school. Findings signal that a rigorous high school curriculum sets the stage for other activities that are likely conducive to college prep. Further, certain high schools foster an organizational habitus where conversations with counselors and teachers are common and expected, facilitating an environment where SAT prep and the idea that one prepares for the SAT are seen as normative.

Future research includes examination of differences in curriculum by geographic region and control, as well as closer attention to the experience of a growing college-bound population – Hispanic students. The paradox that those populations who take more SAT prep but have lower scores is troubling, particularly for Black students. The question remains of whether students are getting the pay-off that certain forms of test prep like private tutoring seem to promise, and also whether the SAT as a test is equitable. Additionally, given our results in conversation with the findings of Byun and Park (2012), it is likely that gains in SAT scores due to participation in test prep are primarily driven by East Asian American students, who are more likely to take SAT prep if they have higher past academic achievement. In other words, SAT prep may be particularly effective in boosting the scores of those who are less in need of boosting versus those who seek SAT prep for remedial concerns, consistent with Domingue and Briggs (2009). [End Page 20]

These findings have significant implications for equity and the college rankings race, which has vaulted the SAT to stratospheric levels. While the SAT continues to undergo reform and revision in efforts to effectively capture student achievement, it will continue to be a barrier to access and equity for many. While students who take SAT prep may still benefit in other ways (preparing for the SAT being part of the college-going mindset) and some individuals may do better than they would have done without the test (although not enough for private tutoring to have a significant effect), if students do not benefit equitably from extra preparation, is this test an effective reflection of students’ achievement or does it more capture the achievement of those who already have a proclivity towards taking standardized tests? Standardized tests may be particularly effective in rewarding the ability to complete tests in a timed setting, which is likely enhanced by strategies learned in commercial test prep. However, the ability to execute such strategies is not necessarily reflective of the thoughtfulness, creativity, and grit that spur excellence and achievement—traits that colleges should also be looking for. As Asian American authors, we certainly do not want to suggest that our findings are evidence of the model minority myth—that East Asian Americans are somehow magically endowed with test-taking expertise. Instead, previous work (Byun & Park, 2012) has found that East Asian Americans are more likely to take test prep when they have higher past achievement, and both studies suggest that gains in SAT prep are primarily attributed to commercial test prep course takers, and more specifically, East Asian Americans.

At the onset, it seems logical that outreach efforts and funding should be directed towards expanding SAT prep for all, and we agree that there may be some utility in this regardless of whether SAT prep actually boosts scores across racial/ethnic groups. SAT prep itself may provide a valuable social function by just getting students into the mindset that they are taking steps towards college enrollment, providing valuable socialization into a sense of college readiness (Klasik, 2012). However, its effectiveness at actually boosting scores across diverse populations is inconsistent, necessitating a closer look at how resources towards both the SAT and SAT prep are marshaled. It also raises questions about the general utility of the SAT as a tool that adequately captures the achievement and potential of students across race to succeed in higher education. As our findings show, there are complex stories that exist behind a single score.

Julie J. Park

Julie J. Park, Ph.D. is assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Ann H. Becks

Ann Ho Becks, Ph.D. is Director of Student Success, Research, and Policy at the Association of Public and Landgrant Universities.


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