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Popular summer SAT boot camp has kids lining up, but is it worth the money?

Wonna Kim is director of Elite Educational Institute's LA branch. The company's $2300, 8-week SAT summer boot camp has grown in recent years.
Wonna Kim is director of Elite Educational Institute's LA branch. The company's $2300, 8-week SAT summer boot camp has grown in recent years.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

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Inside Elite Educational Insitute's Koreatown branch, instructors like Tom Hitcher - a UC Irvine PhD in literature – lead classes drilling math problems or picking apart reading comprehension questions. They're helping students get ready to take the SAT in the fall.

Students groaned about the time commitment, but just as many said they thought it would pay off.

The high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors at one recent session attend powerhouse private schools like Harvard-Westlake and Loyola High, and well regarded public schools in La Cañada and Santa Monica. Their parents pay $2,300 for the class.

“I don’t think they are getting enough help from whichever school they are in,” said Wonna Kim, director of the Elite’s Koreatown branch.

Her company has been offering prep classes for 25 years. The classes are offered at more than a dozen locations and they're so popular, the school has a waiting list.

But researchers say parents and students may not be getting much of a bang for their financial and time commitment buck.

“The research shows that prepping for tests like the SAT can have small impact on student grades or scores on average," said Donald Heller, dean of Michigan State’s school of education. "These companies tend to prey on students and their parents and the hopes of making them more competitive for admission to an elite college,” he said.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, said on average, kids who take prep classes only increased scores by 5 to 30 points. That's out of a possible 2,400.

Elite said its classes nurture writing and thinking  - not test-taking tricks and shortcuts. The company said some students have raised their scores hundreds of points, others none at all.

And enrollment at Elite's classes is growing. Kim said it's up 10 percent this year alone. The classes appeal to parents and students who want a leg up.

“I just feel like getting into a better college, something that hopefully will give me that extra edge against other people is far more beneficial than you know, just having a summer,” said 11th grader Sarane Caratan of Hancock Park as she climbed into her mother’s Porsche at the end of class.

Her mom, who has the same name, said the tutoring was her daughter’s idea.

“I tried to encourage her to have a little bit of summer but she insisted this was something she needed to do. Not your average child,” she said.

Most families can’t afford the price tag for this kind of tutoring.

Elite’s Wonna Kim said to take a small step toward addressing that, her company started giving free SAT tutorials at charter and traditional public schools in low-income neighborhoods a few years ago.

“There are kids out there who want to get this type of benefit but don’t know how to or don’t have access to it," she said "And we wanted to reach out to these kids.”