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Does Free Online Test Prep Spell the End of the Tutoring Industry?

Last week an article in EdSurge trotted out the idea that Khan Academy is poised to become a major disruptor in the test prep space. Within 24 hours, the head of Noodle, a prominent testing center in Manhattan, fired back on Forbes that the tutor is indispensable and that Khan Academy is just another tool in the tutor’s kit.

Neither side, however, is completely right — nor completely forthright. The College Board, the creator of the test, has made the new test’s mantra: fairness. Anything that might suggest that the narrative isn’t that simple is conveniently swept under the rhetorical rug (that an expert tutor meeting face-to-face with a student might be able to help more than an online program, for example). After all, the College Board wouldn’t want anyone to think (gasp!) that the new test can be bought. The College Board, however, isn’t also the one omitting inconvenient truths. The Noodle piece failed to mention the fact that the new SAT isn’t as “tutor-able” as the old test for the simple reason that the new test is much more straightforward and lends itself better to a self-study approach. In the end, both the test-prep industry and the College Board are letting their agendas guide the debate.

But to understand how the debate has reached this point, we need to delve both a little deeper into the partnership between Khan Academy and the College Board and the notion of what an online program can — and can’t — do.

When the College Board announced that it was partnering with Khan Academy, a nonprofit online education platform led by rockstar tutor Sal Khan, it promised a leveling of the playing field, so the wealthy weren’t the only ones with access to prepare for — and ultimately game — the test. This move positioned Khan Academy as a disruptor in the thriving billion-dollar prep industry. But is Khan just that? And can his videos, numerous though they may be, really substitute the experience of having a tutor walk you through the nuances of the test?

An answer to this question was provided by in the op-ed by Noodle, a company that provides tutors, some of whom charge $450/hr. The author likened the role of an experienced tutor to Roger Federer’s coach, implying that even the best need someone to evaluate their performance. This is an intriguing point and again one College Board wouldn’t likely broach (though, by partnering with Khan, it has admitted test prep works, something it had denied in the past).

I can confidently say that no online platform can replace an experienced and engaged tutor. And I say that as the one in charge of developing the New SAT product with Magoosh, and therefore also somebody with intimate knowledge of Khan and a few other leading online platforms out there. In other words, no online platform is able to evaluate your performance. Sure, there are tables and graphs that can show you trends in how your performance has changed. But even as these are refined in the coming years, they are not evaluating what I call “micro-performing” — the thought processes that a student might not even be aware of that lead to the wrong answer. An expert tutor is able to discern these thought patterns and help the student become aware of them. By fine-tuning this micro-performance, the tutor helps the student perform better on the test.

But just how important is tweaking micro-performance, given that you have an excellent online product capable of delivering all of the content? Assuming a student is sufficiently motivated, he will improve quite a bit from watching all of Khan’s videos and doing regular practice tests. However, an increase in points follows a rough increase in price — you pay more for each point increase. At $100 or so with another online education program, the student might get another 50 points. To go up even more, he would have to get a tutor and pay more money. But sometimes even paying as much as $5,000 won’t necessarily mean much of a score improvement at this point. And because the New SAT is less about being aware of your thought processes that lead you to pick the trap answer, an experienced tutor won’t likely have as much as impact as before.

What it comes down to with the new test, and what the Noodle op-ed mentions, is that good tutoring will always be supplemental to good content. Khan has simply leveled the playing field by providing all students with great free content for a test that is more about the content and less about the performance, both “micro-” and otherwise. This idea, in fact, is consistent with College Board’s endorsement of Khan. Sal Khan himself says the following:

“Focusing on the SAT, I think that anything we can do to make that measure more fair and equitable the better.”

Notice he is not saying “fair and equitable” but “more fair and equitable”. There will always be those out there who can afford the $450/hour tutors, but Khan Academy has chipped away at this advantage.

But these are Khan’s words. Again, College Board is not likely to bring up the subject. What does that mean for most students? Well, two things: using Khan is going to help you catch up to those who are able to afford expensive tutors (though not all great tutors charge anything close to $450/hour). Secondly, and this is something the Noodle article won’t mention, doing well on the new SAT is far less about understanding the logic of the test or being aware of your “micro-performance”. It’s actually far more aligned with plain content.

In the end, Khan’s effect on the test prep industry might be more ripple than tsunami. Yet the “Noodles” of the world will see a decrease in profits because the SAT market is shrinking, not only because of Khan but also because of the College Board PR offensive claiming that the new test doesn’t require test prep. However, tutoring does makes a difference, and will still make a small difference on the new test. The question is how much are those few extra points really worth?

This article was written by Chris Lele, Magoosh’s resident GRE and SAT expert.