Interview | Roy Nieto Puts Students in the Game with SureScore

SureScore was created in 1995 to serve students who could not afford expensive test preparation companies. The goal was to bring equity and access to college admissions. “We were puzzled why students in South Texas, who were valedictorians and salutatorians of their high schools, were receiving low scores on the SAT and ACT,” says Roy Nieto, SureScore CEO. “We learned that although these students were remarkably bright, they received little to no test preparation. We realized that, if the top kids were not getting much test prep, students below the top 10 percent probably got zero preparation,” he says. Roy observed that these students wanted to go to top colleges and universities, but if they were going to compete for admissions and scholarship opportunities, then they needed a rigorous college preparation experience. SureScore was created to provide those experiences and here Roy explains how it does just that.

Victor: Alright, let’s get things rolling—what does the name mean?

Roy: “SureScore” describes the feeling we wanted students to have in our prep classes. Today, SureScore means “equity and access” in college admissions. The SureScore team works with school districts to expand college preparation services beyond the top 10 percent of students. We want parents to know that if their district is working with SureScore, both the school district and SureScore is focused on creating a post-secondary pathway for their children. We create educational pathways for all students whether they are interested in pursuing Harvard or Stanford, or whether their goals are to pursue local educational opportunities.

Victor: What is it? Who exactly created it?

Roy: SureScore is a college preparation company focused on bringing “equity and access” to the college admissions process founded by two people. One founder of the company came from a nonprofit background and the other founder was a public school teacher who had test prep experience. Both individuals believed low-income students were not getting the test preparation experience required to increase their chances of college admissions and scholarships. Since that time, the mission of “equity and access to college admissions” has attracted passionate people who bring their talents to the company to help further our mission and bring it to a reality.

Victor: What does it do and what are some of the benefits?

Roy: SureScore partners with public schools to launch district-wide college preparation initiatives. The goal of SureScore is to provide every student, grades 3-12, with the structure and support they need to pursue their education after graduating from high school. Programs include rigorous vocabulary and math development, career and college planning, and test preparation for college admissions and college placement exams. All SureScore programs help students to make a connection between what they are learning in school and how it applies to their lives. That connection results in more students enrolling in college after high school graduation.

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products or services? What companies do you see as in the same market?   

Roy: Most companies in this arena are focused on test preparation for the SAT and ACT. SureScore’s focus is first-generation college applicants, and the needs of that population extend beyond simply test preparation. SureScore provides college advisement, career and college exploration, academic vocabulary development, parent training, counselor training, and excellent professional development for teachers. A second key feature that makes us unique is the way our curriculum is developed. It is a modularized-curriculum that gives school districts flexibility in the implementation process and lots of customization features that lead to larger amounts of students impacted on campuses. It is not uncommon for a school district with three high schools to have three different implementation models on each campus. Our job is to work within the school district structure and help support each individual campus.

Victor: When was it developed? Anything interesting in its development history?

Roy: SureScore started as a retail company selling less expensive courses than the existing test prep companies in the mid-90s. However, we learned private courses were unattainable more many students. They were either too expensive or the students struggled to attend after-school sessions as they managed work schedules, after-school activities, or child-care responsibilities. Therefore, we began working with schools to offer college preparation classes during the school day. As the company grew, initiatives like GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) emerged and helped expand the goal of college preparation for all students.

Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?

Roy: SureScore was launched in Austin, Texas, and is currently available in over 300 schools across the state of Texas. Our company is expanding to Washington and several other key states over the next six months. Additionally, we are finishing a technology platform that will expand SureScore services nationally which we plan to announce this summer at the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia, PA. Our goal is to serve over one million students in the next 36 months.

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

Roy: We provide a variety of products and services ranging from $25 per student to $450 per student. One of SureScore’s hallmarks is flexibility so we definitely bring a customized solution to school districts versus a “cookie-cutter” approach. The cost largely depends upon the number of students the district serves and is designed to be more cost-effective as the student participation increases. SureScore programs can be implemented as classroom-embeded instruction, after-school academies, semester long courses, and also work well in summer school and bridge or grade transition programs. Additionally, districts can utilize their teachers and have SureScore provide training and professional development, or bring in a SureScore instructor.

Victor: What are some examples of it in action?

Roy: We define success as both individual student success and school districts truly embracing college for all students as part of its mission. We have examples like a young woman from Zapata, Texas, who achieved a perfect score on her ACT after going through our course, and Slider Middle School in El Paso, Texas, having ten seventh-graders receive state accolades for their scores on the SAT. We also have amazing stories like Mission CISD in South Texas mandating that all juniors go through a SureScore college preparation class, and San Antonio ISD deciding that all ninth-grade students would go through an early SureScore college preparation class. Those are examples of our mission really reaching into the fabric of school districts and unique superintendents really being innovative and raising the expectations of students, teachers, and the community.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?

Roy: SureScore is designed primarily for urban and rural school districts with large percentages of low-income, first-generation college applicants. Our goal is to build internal capacity within public schools so teachers can provide direct instruction to students although some districts prefer SureScore to provide the direct instruction to the students. SureScore products are exceptionally teacher-friendly, and designed to blend instructional best-practices with small-group instruction activities and differentiated learning strategies that are woven into the fabric of each curriculum. SureScore is not designed to be a retail company so we do not provide private courses for individual families.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Roy: I think we are in danger of focusing so much attention on fighting the short-term battles that we are completely ignoring the long-term direction of education. We pay a lot of lip-service to being “college-ready”, but at the end of the day 95 percent of what drives public education system decisions revolves around “meeting minimum standards”. In Texas, schools talk first about being acceptable, recognized, or exemplary and rarely focus on the “percent of students that enroll in college”. There are only a few districts that are truly focused on creating pathways to college for all students. In 2011, I am still amazed at the number of times I hear “not all kids can go to college”. Those attitudes drive policy and decisions that either help or hurt a child’s opportunities to pursue a post-secondary education. There are beacons of light but often those individuals go through so much push-back that it takes a really special individual or group of people to persevere. One such superintendent was voted as superintendent of the year and then chose retirement.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your of education helped to inform your approach to creating SureScore?

Roy: My father was a huge inspiration for me. Growing up we spent hours of conversation discussing how the United States was only tapping into a portion of its resources if it did not provide full access to education to its entire population. When you look at the resources families pump into their children’s educational experience, including thousands and thousands of dollars into test preparation and college preparation, you realize it is not an even playing field. My senior year in high school, my senior counselor called me into her office once and we spent about 30 minutes talking about my college options. I don’t fault her because our senior class was about 500 students and she was the only one in charge of college advisement. But, it demonstrates that our current system is not designed to send 100 percent of students to college. We need better systems that provide better and earlier guidance and intervention.

Victor: How does SureScore address some of your concerns about education?

Roy: At SureScore, we are constantly looking at new and better ways to make getting to college easier for students. We are currently working on a project that has the potential to completely change the way public schools address college preparation. Our goal is to make sure every student in the United States has a college in their sights and knows what it is going to take to get there. We can provide the structure but we also need to help students build the confidence and the pathway to achieve their dreams. When you survey kids in middle school, over 95 percent of students say they plan to attend college. The breakdown begins to occur once they enter high school, and we believe a better support system will radically increase both enrollment rates and college retention rates.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Roy: I am optimistic that educators are talking about the need to send more students to college. I am also pleased education is getting more attention in the media, in the business sector, and across all areas of our country. Our population is our biggest asset and needs to be nurtured and protected. The investment in our population will pay both short-term and long-term benefits, and we need to be aware that holding low-income students to middle-class values is tough and requires earlier and deeper intervention strategies. Going to college has more commonly been a middle-class value and now we are asking families with high school educations to embrace new ways like leaving home to attend college, living in a dorm, and taking on debt for education. For low-income families to gain academic success, college preparation has to start as early as possible and engage the family in the process.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of SureScore?

Roy: SureScore is not a magic bullet. We are a group of passionate people who will work with school districts to integrate a quality college preparation pathway. But, we cannot do our work without the support of leadership. Asking us to boost your college enrollment and test scores without actively supporting our initiatives is like joining a gym, not going, and then complaining about not losing weight. We strive to develop true partnerships with each school district we work with, and this requires leadership to be intricately involved in the planning, implementation, and management of the process. When those components are achieved, magic happens with increased test scores, college enrollment, and a college-going culture.

Victor: What makes you say that?

Roy: I used to coach a little league baseball team. There were always two groups of parents; one group that actively supported and practiced with their kids, and the other group that just dropped their kids off to practice and games. At the end of the year, the first group would always ask what they could do to get better. The second group typically complained their kids had not evolved to be starters or all-stars yet, and wouldn’t accept responsibility that they simply didn’t invest enough time with their children to attain the results they wanted. College preparation is the exact same thing; the results are a direct result of how vested leadership is in the process. I can tell from almost day one whether a SureScore client is going to be a great partner in the process or whether they are going to be an obstacle in the process. Either way, we will not lose sight of our mission to help students continue their educational goals.


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to:


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