One of the most common questions I field when speaking to families seeking test prep is, “Does Method Test Prep offer any type of score increase guarantee?” Many of those families are often surprised to hear that we do not, as such guarantees have become increasingly prevalent in the test-prep industry. The unfortunate truth is that “score increase guarantees” are rarely more than marketing gimmicks which should actually serve as a red flag when choosing a test-prep company.
Upon examining many such claims in detail, I was struck by how widely these “guarantees” varied across the industry. For example, some companies simply promise that a student’s score will improve, meaning that a score increase as small as 10 points on the SAT or a single section point on the ACT may indemnify the company from following through with any compensation, while others guarantee that students will improve by as much as 250 points on the SAT or 5 composite points on the ACT over the course of a single test. Despite being the more realistic of the claims, the former shouldn’t instill much confidence -- most students naturally score slightly better with each exam they take, regardless of professional test prep. This can be the result of experience with the content and organization of the exam, academic growth throughout the school year, or even something as simple as luck. The goal of professional test prep shouldn't just be to produce "an improvement" but to help students maximize their improvements! As for the latter promises of massive improvements, it’s worth remembering that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
The Fine Print
A quick review of the terms and conditions associated with many test prep companies’ score improvement guarantees sheds light on how some companies are able to make such auspicious claims. Most guarantees that promise a substantial score increase do not actually entitle students’ families to any type of financial compensation; instead, they offer to let the students retake the same course they initially took or, in the case of private tutoring, to attend a small number of private review sessions. Not only does this minimize any potential financial losses for the companies, it actually makes it unlikely that they will ever have to deliver on their promise: few students would choose to re-enroll in a course they’ve already taken and complete the same assignments for a second time, especially if they found the course ineffective the first time.
Further, in order to qualify for any type of guarantee, students are often required to meet strict attendance guidelines, submit all assignments on time, and complete a certain number of practice tests. At first glance, these seem like reasonable terms, but in context, they often create an unreasonable set of expectations that ensures that only a very small group of students will ever be eligible for any type of reimbursement. Take, for example, these terms from a money back guarantee on a 3-week SAT course guaranteeing a 100 point increase:
Note: the comments in parentheses are my own notes or inferences
- Students must submit an official SAT or PSAT score prior to the beginning of the course. PSAT scores will be converted to a scaled SAT score for reference.
- Students must have an initial score less than or equivalent to a 1350 on the SAT.
- Students must submit an official SAT test score from a test taken within 60 days of the final class in the course or an official SAT test score from the next available test date after the final class no later than 90 days from the end of the class.
- Students must attend at least ten of the twelve classes (The course in question consists of twelve 3-hour classes which meet 4 times per week.)
- Students must submit at least eighteen of the twenty homework assignments on time and in full. (From experience, I would guess this is no less than 10 hours of homework in total over the 18 assignments)
- Complete a minimum of at least 6 practice tests, on time and in full. (Roughly 18 hours of practice tests)
All totaled, students would need to complete almost 60 hours of prep over a 3 week period in order to qualify for the money back guarantee. At best, this much material over such a short period of time is overwhelming; at worst, it is an exercise in futility. Even for students who may be able to complete that much prep while still maintaining their regular course load, participating in extracurricular activities, managing their social lives, and finding time to eat and sleep, it is unlikely that many would be able to retain this much information for any prolonged period.
Ultimately, score increase guarantees are most often misleading ad-schemes designed to attract hopeful customers with broad claims. The truth is that predicting how many points a student's score might improve by as a result of tutoring is incredibly difficult; there are dozens of factors to consider which are constantly changing and vary from student to student.
Although Method Test Prep doesn’t offer any specific guarantees, we are pleased that nearly all of our students report score improvements after working with us; an average improvement of 3 points on the ACT and 120 points on the SAT is the norm. Additionally, we take immense pride in the experience we provide to the thousands of students, schools, and families we work with each year, and, in that regard, I believe our testimonials speak more loudly and clearly as to the quality of the service that we provide than any broad and unreliable guarantee ever could.
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