At this test-prep company, will the next generation pass the succession test?

Avery Snyder with daughters Alexandra McIlvaine (left), director of education, and Julia Taunay, director of sales and operations. His daughter Cassie Morocco creates marketing materials.

10 Tips For Parents and Students:

  • For Parents:
  • 1. Colleges weigh both the SAT and ACT equally, so whichever test is a better fit is the one that a student should take.
  • 2. It is important to create a testing timeline early.
  • 3. It's OK if your child does not achieve a perfect score.
  • 4. Register for two test dates at a time.
  • 5. Know what to do if you cannot keep a test date for which you have registered.
  • For Students:
  • 1. Don't stress about your friends' SAT and ACT scores.
  • 2. Lock in scores before you finalize your college list.
  • 3. The test is half academic ability, half confidence.
  • 4. Practice, practice, practice.
  • 5. It's OK to send multiple scores to colleges.

There are the typical pressures of running a small business: amassing enough operating capital; making the right hires; distinguishing oneself from the competition. Then there's the just plain awful stuff.

For Avery Snyder, the worst of that, in my opinion, is what he revealed in a recent interview: "I have taken every SAT since 1969 until maybe a year ago."

Standardized testing hell. My words, not his.

I'm evidently not alone in that assessment, given that Snyder's family-owned test-preparation business, Educational Services of St. Davids, has been around 48 years. The Villanova native founded it after he noticed incongruity while teaching math and English at the Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont.

"The SAT scores did not match up with the students," he recalled. "I realized the students I thought were calm and relaxed were just falling apart" when they sat down to take the college-admissions exam.

In that angst, Snyder saw opportunity. In his view, the test was 70 percent "quizmanship" and 30 percent content, and consequently "something you could prepare for."

His confidence that parents would be willing to pay to ease their children's test-taking anxiety and improve their performance with one-on-one instruction -- the only alternative at the time, he said, was the group lesson of scholastic test-preparation pioneer Stanley Kaplan -- has led to a business Snyder says continues to thrive despite competitors, test changes, and decisions by some colleges and universities to no longer require SAT or ACT results.

Whether that growth can be sustained, and what will fuel it, will be for the next generation to figure out.

Snyder, 69, who now divides his time between homes in Pennsylvania and Florida, has stepped down as director of Educational Services, leaving the running of the business to one of his three daughters, Julia Taunay, 28, of Lawrenceville, N.J., who acknowledged how difficult a decision that likely was for her father.

"This company is his fourth child, maybe his most important child," said Taunay, who majored in business and French at Pennsylvania State University and was a retail manager for Dick's Sporting Goods for four years before joining her father's business in 2015. She is now director of sales and operations at the company, where five full-time instructors and other specialists teach 500 to 700 students a year in individualized sessions. It also offers practice tests and a range of support services.

Taunay and Snyder, now director emeritus, would not disclose revenue. Annual growth has been in the "double digits," with new business coming mostly through referrals from former clients and guidance counselors, Taunay said. Instructional packages, at www.prepwithES.com, can run as much as $4,690 for 24 hours of lessons, offered in St. Davids and at satellite offices in Chadds Ford and Wyndmoor.   

One of Taunay's sisters,  Alexandra McIlvaine, 31, who graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 2007 with a degree in early education and sociology  and has been teaching at Educational Services since 2008, is now director of education. McIlvaine's twin, Cassie Morocco, who lives in Celebration, Fla., creates their marketing materials.

Such family-business succession is becoming harder to find, with only 30 percent making it to second-generation ownership, 12 percent to third, and just 3 percent to fourth, according to recent studies.

There's little doubt that Snyder, who will serve as a consultant, will continue to have an influential role in the company.

"Verbose is the first word I learned. Guess why?" Taunay joked, interrupting her talkative father during my visit last month to their main office, a homey converted house on Lancaster Avenue where a solid walnut reception desk has been around since the business' inception.

Snyder said he is comfortable with the hand-off to his offspring, who have implemented a variety of changes, including the addition of SAT/ACT diagnostic tests to determine how much instruction clients need, as well as counseling, student workshops on such topics as study skills and alleviating testing anxiety, and complimentary seminars for parents on the college-prep process.

Online scheduling now replaces a "giant" appointment book, but Snyder's daughters have continued his tradition of appointment cards.

"My goal when I came here was to not step on his toes," Taunay said. "We're just trying to make the company a little more accessible, a little more modernized."

Let's be honest: In this business, what matters most are results, which can even affect scholarship amounts. On average, Educational Services says, its clients increase ACT scores by 4 points and SAT outcomes by 153.3 points.  The company guarantees a bump of 4 to 5 points on the ACT and 100 to 150 points on the SAT, depending on the length of courses taken. In instances where those results aren't achieved, additional complimentary lessons and practice tests are offered.

"You're looking for somebody who is going to give your kid an opportunity to succeed," said Greg Bobka, of Kennett Square, whose daughter Paige, 17, a high school junior, has been taking ACT prep lessons at Educational Services since November, scored a 30 in December, and is shooting for 32 when she takes it again Feb. 11.

Despite changes in the the tests over the years, their essence is the same, said Snyder, describing the SAT as "a game. ... The trickiness of the thing has not changed over time."

10 Tips for Parents and Students

For Parents:

1. Colleges weigh both the SAT and ACT equally, so whichever test is a better fit is the one that a student should take.

2. It is important to create a testing timeline early.

3. It's OK if your child does not achieve a perfect score.

4. Register for two test dates at a time.

5. Know what to do if you cannot keep a test date for which you have registered.

For Students:

1. Don't stress about your friends' SAT and ACT scores.

2. Lock in scores before you finalize your college list.

3. The test is half academic ability, half confidence.

4. Practice, practice, practice.

5. It's OK to send multiple scores to colleges.