Even educational programs deceive consumers, and even consumer advocates are taken in – National Consumers League

By Courtney Brein, NCL Food Safety and Nutrition fello

I love the issues on which I focus as the Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow, and I really enjoy working at NCL, but I also eventually plan to return to school to pursue a higher degree. With my future plans in mind, I decided that it made sense to take the requisite standardized test this spring, which would enable me to apply to graduate school at any point in the next five years (after that point, scores expire). A month or so ago, I began spending a few hours each weekend doing practice problems, figuring that this method of preparation, which I have employed to ready myself for past standardized tests, would be sufficient. Hoping to experience a more realistic version of the test than the paper and pencil problems from my test prep book allow, I located a free online practice test, to be administered during a live, web-based “classroom” session provided by a certain not-to-be-mentioned test prep company (two syllables, starts with a “k,” ends with an “n”).

Several Saturdays ago, I logged into the webpage previously provided by the test prep company, listened to the instructor’s shpiel, and took the practice test. The actual test is computer adaptive, meaning that the test-taker receives harder or easier questions depending on whether she answered the previous question correctly; this test, however, was not. During the 25-minute talk, through which the attendees had to sit following the practice exam in order to receive our scores, the instructor assured us that – even though the test we took was not computer adaptive – it was an extremely accurate predictor of the score we would each have received, had we taken the real test that day. He repeated this several times, both before and after the scores were released. Not surprisingly, much of the talk focused on the various test-prep courses offered by the not-to-be-mentioned company, and how these courses would improve each of our scores.

When I viewed my score, I was alarmed. I had not scored nearly as well as my practice problem results and pencil-and-paper diagnostic test suggested that I would. What was I to do? Based on this exam, I would do not receive the score I wanted – and felt I needed – if I were to take the real test without a meaningful, strategic study plan. As the instructor droned on about the various course offerings provided by K—-n, and the fact that each option guaranteed students a higher score, it seemed to me that I had no other option than to enroll. The following morning, I signed up for K—n’s online course – the cheapest offering, but one that still cost a pretty penny.

Lo and behold, when I took the computer adaptive diagnostic exam – my first step as an enrollee in the expensive prep course – that determines the official score that K—-n uses as a baseline in demonstrating a student’s improvement between enrollment and test day, I did not score as I had the previous evening. This time I scored much higher, achieving the target score I had originally set for myself, a score I would be more than happy to submit to graduate programs.

Given the significant discrepancy between my two scores, I cannot help but believe that the following took place: To entice me to purchase its products, K—-n provided me (and thousands of other prospective students) with a free exam designed to suggest that I (and thousands of other prospective students) would perform at a level below that of competitive applicants, were I to take the test without further preparation. Yet, according to a more representative version of the exam – available only after purchasing course materials – I would actually score toward the upper end of the range achieved by successful applicants to my desired program.

In the end, of course, the fault lies with me. I took the instructor’s insistence about the accuracy of the free diagnostic test at face value, trusting that a company with the goal of educating youths and young adults would not engage in deceptive practices just to earn a buck (or, in this case, many, many bucks). In this situation, however, I faced an enormous information imbalance, skewed in the direction of the test prep company. They had access to computer adaptive exams; I did not. They knew the accuracy (or lack thereof) of their free diagnostic test; I did not. They had hundreds of thousands of success stories on which to draw; I had no reason to assume they’d deceived any prospective students before, and therefore operated under the assumption that I could trust the diagnostic score they’d generated for me.
This experience taught me a lesson that one can never learn too many times as a consumer advocate, or as a consumer in the marketplace. There nearly always exists an imbalance of information between company and consumer; the company knows everything (or almost everything) about its product or services, while the consumer knows only what the company chooses to tell her and what she can find out on her own. While K—-n’s deceptive behavior is not acceptable, consumer deception is not unique to K—-n, or really all that surprising. As a consumer, it is my job – and yours – to remain alert, inquisitive, and slightly dubious in the marketplace; to “trust but verify”; and to do my due diligence before making a significant purchase.

So, if it does nothing for my exam score, at least my overpriced, unnecessary K—-n test prep course will have taught me something. In the meantime, I’ll work my way through the practice materials, mostly because I paid for them.