Test prep should be real education

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

Guest post by Chris Ryan

Before I took the SAT 30 years ago, I told my friend Rob to “Never guess C.” Knowing I had done well on the PSAT, he trusted me. Afterwards, Rob asked me what I thought of the exam.

“I saw a lot of C’s,” I said.

Poor Rob.

“Never guess C” represents what a lot of people think “test prep” is – a mishmash of tips and tricks, some possibly valid, some not, all in an effort to game the test and scrape out extra points. That is not what test prep can or should be. It’s not what great test prep is. I proudly work in test prep. I think about grammar and algebra—and how to teach them—all the time. My wife jokes that she should launch a television series called “Test Prep Wives.”

I wear a few hats at Manhattan Prep, but my first and most important job is Instructor. I started teaching in 1991, and in some shape or form I’ve been doing this job ever since. Teaching is my calling. And I have learned that preparing students for standardized tests, including the SAT, is teaching in its purest form.

Through test prep, students can actually be made better learners and test-takers. They don’t just learn new things. They learn how to do new things, maybe things they never thought they could do before.

This translates into a student who has struggled with math his or her entire life being able to finally say to him or herself, “Hey, I can do math.” When our students gain new identities this way, when they become confident and courageous test-takers and problem-solvers, we know that test-prepping has actually educated and transformed them.

Transformational education, which is the type of education all test prep should aspire to be, requires three things: an amazing teacher, a working partnership between teacher and student, and rigorous goals. An amazing teacher must effectively diagnose, explain, engage, challenge, encourage, and motivate. Of course, the teacher needs to have excellent tools at hand, but first of all the teacher needs to be excellent as a coach and in fact as a person. Teacher quality is what really matters, and not surprisingly this is where my company places its bets. Unlike school teachers or college professors who are responsible for being both a judge of all of their students and an instructor, test prep instructors can focus solely on the learning experience. There are no grades, and no fears of providing too many or too few A’s. It’s all about helping students achieve the outcomes they want to achieve.

A working partnership between teacher and student is also critical. Achieving true change requires deep, lasting commitment from both sides, as well as from parents, counselors, and other school staff. As any parent knows, test-taking is a stressful, emotional time for many students. Surrounding students with a network of support boosts their confidence, and makes it easier for them to master exam material. But students cannot rely on this network alone for motivation. They must push themselves, developing rigorous and specific goals about the scores they want to reach, and, more importantly, the skills they want to learn as they prepare for an exam.

I see my job as an instructor as a long-term role, not a short-term responsibility. My goal is not to funnel kids in and out of the test prep system, sending them on their way to take their test and, fingers crossed, do well. By treating test prep as real education, and test prep instructors as valued teachers, we can end the stigma associated with standardized testing. Instead of viewing standardized tests as instruments of torture, students can see them as tools for change. With the right test prep, students can fine-tune (or perhaps truly understand for the first time) fundamental skills that they can apply on this exam, and throughout their lives. They can walk into future classrooms and boardrooms with confidence.


Chris Ryan is the Vice President of Academics at Manhattan Prep. Chris holds an A.B. in physics from Harvard University and an MBA from the Fuqua School of Business (Duke). He is an alumnus of Teach For America and McKinsey & Co


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