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Published in Print: March 14, 2001, as Companies Cash In on Testing Trend

Companies Cash In on Testing Trend

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If 10th graders at New Bedford High School don't perform well on the Massachusetts graduation exam they are set to take next month, it won't be because they didn't have a chance to prepare.

The school is offering no fewer than 12 sections of a course devoted to reviewing for the state test. Administrators sent "contracts" home to parents, asking them to help prepare students. And to top it all off, the school is shelling out roughly $30,000 to give all sophomores access to TestU.

TestU is an Internet-based program that offers students individualized preparation for the state tests they will have to pass in order to graduate. It is one of a growing number of test-preparation services and materials that for-profit companies are offering around the country in an effort to cash in on the trend toward high-stakes testing. Schools and districts, eager to raise their test scores, are proving to be willing customers.

For about $50 a head, New Bedford students are learning TestU's test-taking strategies, and are boning up on basic skills through the program's refresher courses. They can even log on to a test simulation that provides sample questions and timed sections that mimic what they will experience on exam day.

All said, TestU "offers kids who feel like they're lost at sea something to hold on to," said Beverly A. Bizzarro, the assistant headmaster of the 3,600-student school in New Bedford. "It's a big-ticket item for an urban high school like us, but we're hoping the returns are going to be well worth it."

A Growing Market

As states continue to raise the stakes tied to standardized tests, such as using them as the basis for promoting students to the next grade or awarding high school diplomas, the cottage industry surrounding test preparation at the K-12 level is growing and gaining permanence.

Companies like Kaplan Inc. and The Princeton Review—veteran purveyors of preparation courses for the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams—are selling everything from professional-development seminars for educators to diagnostic tests tied to state exams for students in various grades. Newer Internet companies like TestU and TestProfessor.com have created online tools that schools can buy to give students interactive test practice at home or in class. And big and small educational publishers alike are selling textbooks and software designed to help teachers and families prepare students for state tests.

"The market opportunity is undeniable," said Adam J. Newman, a senior analyst at Eduventures.com, a Boston-based market-research firm focused on education- related businesses. "As schools increasingly face pressure to ensure that they're improving their performance, they will also be looking to increase and augment the resources they're making available."

At New Bedford High School, Ms. Bizzarro said, students are under tremendous pressure to perform well on the English and mathematics portions of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Systems test, which they will take in April and May. Under state law, this year's 10th grade class is the first that will need to pass those two portions of the test to graduate, although students will have more chances to do so if they don't succeed this spring. Roughly half the sophomores at the school who took the test last year failed at least one required section. "It's a matter of motivation and review," Ms. Bizzarro said. "We know the kids are capable of more than that."

Feeding Frenzy?

The school turned to the New York City-based TestU, which is offered in Massachusetts and a handful of other states, because the program identifies and adapts to the particular academic strengths and weaknesses of each student, Ms. Bizzarro said.

Another selling point was that it allows students to log on and work from home. Students were given access to the program for the first time last month, and preliminary data show that they are using it: Roughly 200 students logged on during the school's February break alone.

In New York City, Community School District 15 also recently sought outside help with test preparation, hiring Kaplan Inc. to give a professional-development seminar for teachers and administrators. The seminar centered on strategies the educators could use to help students on the state's 4th grade English assessment.

Such sessions, which the New York City-based company conducts in New York, Florida, Texas, and other states, cost between $2,000 and $3,000 for two to three hours of training.

"It's a very good tool to use right before a test to pull everything together," said Liliana A. Reichert, an assistant principal at Public School 1, who attended the Kaplan session in District 15, a Brooklyn subdistrict of the citywide system. "It gave us tips and shortcuts and other methods we could use to train the students."

In general, it's too soon to say whether the various products designed to prepare students for state assessments are yielding higher scores. But critics contend that any academic gains made as a result of intense test preparation are shallow and short-lived.

The test- prep companies selling such services are like leeches, they say, feeding off what those critics see as states' increasingly unhealthy emphasis on test results. To make matters worse, they argue, the schools that can least afford to pay for such programs—without shifting money from other much-needed expenditures—are often the ones that feel most compelled to buy them.

"These are the same schools who have a gun to their heads: Raise your scores or else," said Alfie Kohn, the author of The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools, a book published last year. "To do that, they have to waste money on this type of crap instead of buying books."

But test-prep executives say that such criticisms are way off base, and that opponents show a lack of understanding of the nature of the services the companies provide. If anything, one Princeton Review official said, the company is working to help teachers integrate test preparation as seamlessly as possible throughout the school year, so that they don't need to deviate as much from their day-to-day lesson plans and curriculum materials.

"The idea is not to feed into the hysteria," said Stephen Kutno, the vice president of educational policy and strategy for Homeroom.com, an Internet test-preparation program offered by The Princeton Review, which is based in New York City. "This is a solution that will help you make meaning of the assessment and implement something into the classroom without distracting from what teachers do best."

Mark F. Bernstein, the president of K-12 learning services at Kaplan, echoes that sentiment. Ultimately, he says, there's nothing wrong with helping teachers and students prepare for a test that has important consequences.

"In life itself, none of us would take a road trip without looking at a map first," he said. "We try to bridge the gap between a student's knowledge and his or her performance on the test."

State Officials Skeptical

Still, even many state education officials maintain that test-specific preparation materials and programs are at best unnecessary, and at worst, educationally unsound. Some officials argue that if teachers are following a standards-based curriculum day in and day out, they shouldn't need extra materials to help students prepare for tests based on state academic standards. Others say that the test-preparation materials and old tests released to schools in some states already provide teachers with ample materials to get their students ready.

California legislators considered test-specific preparation to be so detrimental, in fact, that in 1997 they passed a law prohibiting it. The state board of education revisited the policy last fall in response to district inquiries.

Under the board's updated guidelines—distributed to districts at the start of this school year—it is considered "appropriate" for teachers to instruct students to identify key words in writing-test "prompts," for example, but "inappropriate" for them to focus on one type of writing "in the expectation that it will be tested during a specific year."

California schools taking part in test preparation that is deemed inappropriate could become ineligible for state rewards tied to higher test scores, or face other sanctions. "The best way for students to do really well on these tests is by thoroughly learning the subject matter," said Doug Stone, a spokesman for the state education department. "That's why we're making sure that teachers are teaching to content standards and not to specific tests."

In Texas, meanwhile, a legal technicality prevents members of the state board of education from adopting similar regulations, although they have looked into the question, said Keith Cruse, the managing director of the Texas Education Agency's student-assessment program.

"You don't need any of that stuff," Mr. Cruse said of the whole host of test-preparation products tied to the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. "It is just not necessary. The best preparation for our assessment program is to teach the curriculum."

Lowering Anxiety Levels

But Dalea D. Tatum, a 5th grade teacher at the 235-student Woodlands Elementary School in Amarillo, Texas, said that Homeroom.com is a tool that helps her teach the state-mandated curriculum. The Internet-based program gives her feedback on the state academic objectives that individual students may be struggling with, so that she can better tailor instruction to meet students' needs before they're tested. If they are weak in a particular area, she said, they work on it until they are up to par.

"It's kind of like teaching someone to drive a car without letting them get into it," Ms. Tatum said. "You can teach them on paper, but until they actually try it, it's not going to do them much good."

Even as many state education officials discount money spent on test-preparation products as unnecessary, some are working to create their own materials.

In California, Gov. Gray Davis' proposed budget includes $27.5 million to produce test-prep materials for all students. Mr. Stone said the materials would be booklets designed to help students prepare for the new high school exit exam as well as Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, the test the state currently uses.

"This is to keep the playing field even so that all schools have a clear understanding as to how they can assist their students, but not cross that fine line," Mr. Stone said.

Vol. 20, Issue 26, Pages 1,26,28

Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Princeton Review's Homeroom.com provides information on its state test preparation services for teachers. Includes sample screens and a demo presentation. Homeroom also features an "Assessment Advisor," with detailed summary information on state test requirements.
  • Kaplan's Score division offers various assessment and preparation services for pre-college students, including a state "Test Readiness Evaluation" product for children grades 1-8. Kaplan has also developed a corporate timeline intended to highlight its "transformation from a test prep company to a network of education and career services."
  • TestU offers test-preparation products and services for educators. Includes course descriptions and a program demo. Also, read TestU's mission statement.
  • "Teaching to the Test," from the American School Board Jounal's Helping Children Learn anthology, discusses schools' efforts to align curriculum and standardized testing. The article was written by current Education Week assistant managing editor Kevin Bushweller.
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