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Is Khan Academy Adequate Test Prep?

March 27, 2020

I hear it on a daily basis. It’s a really valid question too. “Why should I pay for test-prep help, when I can get my kid to do the Khan Academy’s program—for FREE?”

And I get it. When you’ve got the College Board backing the Academy to the hilt, why wouldn’t you believe it to be the best thing on the market? I mean, the SAT is written by the College Board. It just makes sense. Or does it?

I’m a parent. I know how hard it can be to afford extra stuff for your kids. But if you don’t want to gamble your children’s financial future on a bet that will not pay, then stick with me because I want to give you as balanced a view on the whole Free versus Paid Test-Prep company scenario as I possibly can. Something for free these days is awfully compelling. Especially when so much is for free on the internet. But don’t be fooled.

Reading and acting on this article might prove to be a very valuable 5 minutes. Ultimately, whatever actions you do choose to take in the lead up to college entry, you want them to yield you the best possible results. When it comes to college stakes, that means any or all of the following benefits: some kind of grant, bursary, scholarship and entrance into a college of your choice. Yes indeed, the free course is accessible and its perceived quality of endorsement by the College Board does have a certain attraction. 

Practice is an important part of the college prep process. But you have to be targeted with your approach.

Khan Academy has been a valuable and vastly growing educational resource since its inception in 2008. Salman Khan originally created it to help a family member across the country. The whole system has been of enormous benefit for content-based learning.

The partnership with the College Board is a noble attempt—with its heart in the right place—to provide accessible help for the SAT.

And here’s the issue. The SAT, and other similar tests are not examining high school content. They are standardized tests that measure your logic and critical thinking. They just happen to be using high school content for college entry (because they have to hang their questions on something). Khan Academy’s weakness in providing help for college-bound students is in its focus on content. Unfortunately, this approach won’t cut it when it comes to acing the SAT.

Here are the major problems and weaknesses summarized in point form for you:

  • While practice tests are provided, the test-prep help only tackles questions from the level of answering and working out the problem.
  • With its high school content approach, the default focus is on academic achievement. And standardized tests do not function that way.
  • There is no focus on teaching you test-taking techniques and strategies.
  • There is no focus on helping you use the strategies to answer the questions as fast as you can…to save time and score you more points.

The alliance between the Board and the Academy is really at loggerheads at the core and represents an odd ambiguity. On the one hand the Board says you can’t study for the SAT but recommends studying for it via content review through the Academy.

There is ample evidence out there, including from College Prep Genius and other college-prep programs, that if you know what you’re looking for, the SAT and ACT etc. are beatable tests and there ARE shortcuts to each question. I stake my company’s reputation on it. There are recurring patterns and rules on each test. This is great news to you because it means you can learn to recognize question types, learn specific strategies, completely independent of content.

This means you don’t have to learn more content like math concepts and thousands of vocabulary words. You don’t have to learn high school topics all over again. 

Real college-prep strategies vs. the Khan content-approach

In the Reading section, Khan’s instructors will read a passage slowly and go line by line breaking down each one. In the real SAT tests, on average you only have about a minute per question and six passages to tackle. There is simply not enough time to take the long road through the tests. Learn the right college-prep strategies and you can skip as much as 75% of the passage. In fact, I teach students the five types of questions, how to rearrange them in the correct order, how to eliminate the wrong trick answers first and have a far easier time of choosing from a diminished set of answers.

The Writing and Language section requires students to comfortably read all four passages and answer 44 questions in a 35 minute time frame. That’s only 47 seconds per question. The Khan approach is to go through each passage and question, one line at a time and in chronological order. Wouldn’t you rather learn the 13 recurring grammar and punctuation problems found in this section and answer many questions in ten seconds? I thought so!

Contrary to what you may think, you can prepare your essay to a special formula—just like the rest of the test. So, while the essay may be optional, we strongly encourage you to always write it. Follow our proven template; it contains all the ingredients for a high score.

The Math section on Khan generally works out the problem the long way, showing all of the work. Again, there is no time for this when you are sitting the real SAT and working like crazy against a ticking clock—not if you want to maximize your scores on the SAT. You simply have to learn the systems to sidestep lengthy calculations. Problems can be answered in 30 seconds or less and without a calculator. In many cases, you’ll have learned how to look for the right answer instead of solving the problem.

The vague or long problem explanations that populate the Khan platform is likely to leave you confused on how to self-correct your mistakes and find a quick answer the next time a similar question arises. You see, with the Khan Academy approach, unless you get served up the same math problem again, you may not be able to answer the what’s in front of you. Understand the strategy of the structure of the question and answer(s) and you’ll notice the hidden ‘formula’ and have a far greater chance to get it right, even if math is not your strongpoint. 

The SAT is designed to level the playing field of all students since a 4.0 at one school is not the same as one awarded at another. The one thing arguably regarded as reliable to compare, are your critical thinking skills. The design of the test is based on logic and the pressure is on to answer as many questions as you can in a short period of time. It’s not as straightforward as you might like: The questions are purposely misleading and the trick answers are easy to pick—but only if you know what to look out for. Khan doesn’t teach the students how to discern the distractors from the correct answer. Which means unless you have the right kind of training and practice, you won’t know which answers to confidently eliminate. And this is why smart students bomb the SAT—all the time.

Online versus pencil on paper

Another problem is the testing format. Your brain is the most powerful computer so use it to its best advantage. A neat trick of neurophysiology is to forge strong neural pathways. How do you do that? You practice the way you intend to take the test. Simple. Despite being in the digital age, most college testing is still done with pencil and paper, reading paper booklets, underlining, circling, working out answers, and then writing in or bubbling in your answers. If you practice online, you are forging different neurological pathways, and not using the right strategies for the real test. If you decide to only do the free Khan testing, then you can count it as practice. It will be helpful to familiarize yourself with the style of the test, but if you want it to be a little more useful then please, at least download and print the work. That way, you can simulate a real test, and use some parallel skills to circle key words and decipher the questions with your pencil.

It is statistically true that students whose families have more money tend to do better on the SAT, partly because they probably have access to test-prep. To counter allegations of unfair play, the College Board responded by partnering with Khan so test-prep could be accessible to all students. As a result the SAT is relevant and visible to many more students, which is a great thing. Perhaps the strategy of the Board was to make the SAT more competitive with the ACT and seduce more students over. None of this changes the fact that the online platform still puts learning content rather than strategy as king. 

The bottom-line is this: If you want to ace the test, learning high school content and vocabulary lists will not give you the competitive edge that you need to win at college-prep and entry. You need to ‘play the game’ and learn how to master standardized testing strategies.

Caveat emptor is Latin for “let the buyer beware”. And that even applies to free products like Khan Academy test-prep. Start as early as possible (rather than leave it to the last minute in your senior year). Get as much practice as you can. Use real tests. Get test-prep help. Choose a test-prep company that shows you that to do well, does not rely on learning high school content. Learn how to answer questions quickly, easily, and within seconds—sometimes without even doing the work-up or reading the entire passage. Sounds crazy and maybe even unbelievable.

If you are in the camp of raising your score, and have your heart set on gaining college admission, receiving free money and attending the college of your choice, then come and check College Prep Genius out. We have taught tens of thousands of students how to meet these goals. There is no instant success but if you LEARN the strategies, WORK the problems, you can WIN the scholarships!

CPG Founder | Author

Jean Burk is the author of the award-winning College Prep Genius program and has written numerous articles about the SAT and PSAT tests, high school prep, college prep, and how to get free college. She is a Fox News Contributor and has been featured as an SAT and Educational expert on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, TXA21, CW33, WE, Forbes, UShop TV and The Homeschool Channel.

She currently travels and speaks about the importance of college preparation at conventions, book fairs, schools, libraries, etc. She has taught her revolutionary, award-winning “Master the SAT” Prep Class all over the United States, mainland China, India, Hong Kong and Thailand. Her program is now also online at www.collegeprepgenius.com . 

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