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Firms Eyeing Test-Prep Aid for Students

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Companies that specialize in coaching students to take the SAT are casting an eye toward preparing students for high-stakes state assessments.

With all the state and national emphasis on student accountability and related new tests, companies such as Kaplan Educational Centers and the Princeton Review are expanding their presence in the K-12 market.

Kaplan is now writing customized diagnostic tests that schools or districts could use to pinpoint students' skill levels well before they sit for a state's standardized exam.

And just as the large majority of New York state students will soon have to pass the regents' exams to receive a high school diploma, guidebooks for the tests by both Kaplan and the Princeton Review shortly will be hitting bookstores across the state. Officials from both New York City-based companies say they are waiting to see where demand for the guidebooks proves strongest. Then they will decide where to publish guides among the growing number of states requiring students to pass assessments before they can graduate or move on to the next grade.

Similar to its SAT-preparation books, Kaplan's guides to the New York regents' exams, for example, will include sample questions from past exams as well as study tips and test-taking strategies. While the guidebooks will be targeted chiefly at parents and students, the diagnostic tests will be directed toward schools.

The companies' move into state-assessment territory is no surprise to anyone familiar with the current SAT market, said Robert Schaeffer, the public education director at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based watchdog group that is critical of most standardized testing.

"The SAT market in the past several years has been stagnant," Mr. Schaeffer said. "If you want to sell more products, you have to look at other pies."

The proportion of students taking the SAT has risen slightly in the past several years; nearly 4 percent more students took the exam this year than in 1996, according to the College Board.

Concerns About Equity

But the introduction of new lines of K-12 materials raises some of the same concerns that SAT critics have long complained about--namely, that students whose families can afford to spring for a host of test-coaching products and services have a leg up on the college-entrance exam. If the use of commercial test-preparation materials for states' standardized tests gains popularity, schools could face similar worries about equity.

Kaplan and the Princeton Review charge about $700 for their SAT classes; their test books and software, however, are far less expensive--ranging in price from $11 to $50.

"At the higher education level, it's the middle-class kids and above that can advance themselves through these companies," George Madaus, a professor of education and public policy at Boston College, points out. "So there's an equity issue. And that interacts with the scores across the state."

But Joe Scherer, the executive director of K-12 partnerships at Kaplan, says that low-achieving districts could benefit from using his company's new diagnostic tests. At roughly $30 per exam, the new Kaplan tests, which are geared to individual state assessments, are intended to be an affordable way to help schools identify skills that need improvement, not to teach students the tricks of the tests, he said. ("NASSP To Promote Company's Practice SAT Tests," Nov. 19, 1997.)

"Florida has more than 60 schools that have been identified as nonperforming," Mr. Scherer said. "I'm sure there's an emphasis in those environments to determine what remedies could address the deficiencies."

Florida students in grades 4, 5, 8, and 10 will take their state's assessment tests in reading, writing, and mathematics for the first time next month. But Kaplan won't likely find its market niche there, state education officials say.

If teachers are teaching to the state's standards, districts shouldn't need a private company to provide another evaluation, said Robert Bedford, the deputy commissioner for educational programs at the Florida education department.

"The way we've set it up is that the teacher should know how the students are doing as they go along," Mr. Bedford said. "Our school year is the test preparation. There are no surprises."

Educators in both Florida and Texas question why schools or districts would pay for simulated practice exams when both states will make past copies of the tests available to schools.

John Katzman, the president of the Princeton Review, also wonders why any student would spend money on a "knockoff" when he or she can easily get access to last year's test. Although the Princeton Review is publishing guidebooks to the New York regents' exams, Mr. Katzman said his company does not plan to create more "aggressive" test-preparation materials, such as the diagnostic tests, for state standardized tests.

"If I were a student, I'd save myself a lot of money and get a copy of the test itself," Mr. Katzman said.

But according to John McLaughlin, the editor of The Education Industry Report, a Sioux Falls, S.D.-based newsletter that monitors the education market, the national push for accountability and testing will surely mean growth for test-preparation companies.

"Any measurable and demonstrable performance by kids is what society and legislators are calling for right now," Mr. McLaughlin said. "It's going to create opportunity for these businesses to step in. I don't know yet what it's going to mean for the kids."

Johnny-Come-Latelies?

Meanwhile, Barron's Educational Services Inc. has done a steady business selling its guides to the New York regents' exams for about 15 years, said Grace Freedson, the managing editor of the Hauppauge, N.Y.-based company.

"All of these Johnny-come-latelies are getting involved in something we've been doing for years and years," Ms. Freedson said.

Barron's also publishes guides to exams in Texas, where a statewide cottage industry has grown up around test-preparation for the TAAS, or the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, said Keith Cruse, the director of student assessment at the state education department. High school students must pass the TAAS to receive their diplomas.

At least half a dozen small companies offering test workbooks and materials have cropped up in the past two years, Mr. Cruse said.

Some of those companies offer easy ordering through the Internet. One Web site hawking Texas' math-assessment study guides for $19.95 features a sorcerer facing down a fearsome red dragon. The cyberspace ad reads: "Are you ready to conquer math?"

The companies may be selling the materials, but they are not helping Texas students, Mr. Cruse charged. "I've had my staff look at a couple of them because of complaints. They weren't matched up to the Texas objectives."

But the states themselves create a market for the test-preparation companies when they make individual students accountable for their scores, Mr. Madaus said. Any parents with means would be foolish not to do everything possible to ensure that their children receive a diploma, he added. "This was bound to happen as the stakes got higher."

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