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A+ Test Prep helps parents, kids understand standardized tests

Sheba Lowe Brown has a message to high school students and their parents: Read, take challenging courses and don't leave standardized test preparation until the very last moment.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

Sheba Lowe Brown has a message to high school students and their parents: Read, take challenging courses and don't leave standardized test preparation until the very last moment.

The mom of four in Durham is a former long-time high school teacher turned test prep guru. She is owner of A+ Test Prep and Academic Services. Brown and her instructors travel the Triangle and state to work with high school students getting ready for the tests or to talk with parents of kids who will be taking the SAT and ACT.

"When a student says 'I'm not a good test taker,'" said Brown, "what that says is 'I'm not prepared.'"

Brown, who graduated from the second class of the N.C. Teaching Fellows at UNC-Carolina, spent her nearly 19-year teaching career at schools in Durham and Chatham County, but mostly at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh where she was an English teacher. She started tutoring on the side, helping kids get ready for test day. 

"Before I looked up, I had 20 kids I was tutoring," she remembers.

A decade ago, she began teaching a SAT prep elective at Leesville with another teacher. Their students saw results. Every year, they made the greatest gains in their point scores. One student, who qualified for special education services and eventually moved on to East Carolina University, saw the score rise 240 points, she remembers.

In 2011, Brown, who also has a master's degree from Carolina, decided to leave the classroom and embark on test prep full time. A+ Test Prep was born. 

Brown also has experience working with some of the Triangle's colleges, including as an instructor for Heels for Success at Carolina; N.C. Central's GRE prep for athletes; and for Duke University's youth programs, among others.

Brown is passionate about her business and her work. She says parents, schools, community groups, churches and coaches don't do nearly enough to help high schools get ready for the tests, which can play important roles as students apply to college or seek scholarships.

And most high school students take at least two of the tests for free. In North Carolina, public high school students take the PLAN test, a pre-test for the ACT, in their sophomore year for free. In their junior year, they are required to take the ACT. Many school systems in North Carolina also administer the PSAT, the pre-test for the SAT. In Wake County, for instance, all 10th graders take the PSAT for free as well. 

"A good score is one that gets you into a college and is good enough to get them to pay you to go," Brown said.

She holds up groups like Hillside High School's football parents booster club as an example. They saw that their students weren't getting the test prep support they needed and set up her course series for the team's players and eventually other students at the Durham school. 

"It's because the parents had the vision," she said.

But parents also sometimes fall down on the job themselves, she said, as they balk at fees for a test prep course while shelling out money for high-end shoes or the latest smartphone. Brown's SAT/ACT prep class is $295.

And many don't follow up with their kids to ensure that they're doing the reading and practice tests that are key to good scores, she said. While students can make point gains of 200 or 300 points after taking Brown's classes, she also runs into parents who don't understand why their child's scores didn't go up as high.

"There are too many parents who think this class is a panacea that will fix what their kids haven't done for the past seven, eight years," Brown said.

What should students be doing to make sure they do well on the test? It's easy and, if you have a library card, free, Brown said. They need to be avid readers. They should be reading all subjects and genres - history, science, social studies, English, fiction, comic books, graphic novels, magazines. And they need to make sure they're taking a challenging course load in school.

"Encourage your students to be life-long learners," she said. " ... Students, advocate for yourself."

Brown loves her work. As a first generation college student herself, Brown sees kids who remind her of herself as a kid. She loves getting texts from students as they find out their scores or to share details about their college acceptance letters and scholarships they've been offered.

"This is what I live for," she said, "because 25 years ago, I was the child who didn't have access to any of this."

{{a href="external-link-0"}}A+ Test Prep{{/a}} offers classes, private tutoring and more at its Durham location and around the region.
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