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Published in Print: March 14, 2001, as Companies Target Large States Where the Stakes are High

Companies Target Large States Where the Stakes are High

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Last fall, as middle school administrators here combed through the results of state achievement tests in English and mathematics, some of them may also have noticed a flier in the mail from Kaplan Inc. The mailing promoted the company's professional-development seminars, designed to help teachers help their students perform better on state tests.

The timing of the mailing was no coincidence, and neither was the location of its recipients. Like a handful of other states targeted by Kaplan and other companies providing test preparation at the K-12 level, New York is a large state with high stakes attached to its well-known annual assessments. It is, in other words, fertile ground for a test-prep sales pitch.

While the test- preparation market for SAT and ACT college-entrance exams is national, the market for such services tied to state assessments is overwhelmingly focused in a limited number of states, including California, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, and Virginia. In determining which state tests to target, executives with companies that produce test-prep materials and services say they look not just at a state's student population, but also at the perceived stability of its assessment system. Another factor is how much publicity the test itself has received.

"It's the states that are in the news," Trent R. Anderson, the vice president of publishing at Kaplan, said during an interview at the company's headquarters here. "The stronger the debate, the more it appears in the press, the more parents and students seek out information."

Feast or Famine

As a result of that approach to product development, a Massachusetts student looking to prepare for the state's high-stakes and highly controversial 10th grade tests can choose from a variety of titles, including Kaplan's "Ultimate MCAS" guide, The Princeton Review's "Cracking the MCAS," or a lesser-known Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System software package by a Norwood, Mass.-based company called MaxSkill.com.

A student hoping to prepare for the lower-stakes annual assessments in Washington state, meanwhile, would find few commercial test-prep options—even though the state serves a larger student population than the Bay State. Washington state students don't need to pass state tests to graduate from high school or advance to the next grade.

For school leaders in the states that the test-prep companies market to, the abundance of test-related materials for educators can prove overwhelming. Sharon Tanner, the principal of the 450-student Midway Elementary School in Sanford, Fla., said that she sees so many FCAT-related products that she doesn't know where to start.

"There's so much out there, I could weed through it forever," Ms. Tanner said. "You have to be careful, just because it has the word FCAT stamped on the cover does not mean that the content truly supports the test."

Looking for 'Pain'

Executives at TestU appear to have gone a step further than most other test-prep companies in zeroing in on the students and schools they seek to serve. The Internet-based company has so far developed state-specific preparation programs only in those states with exit exams that students must pass to graduate.

"It is our mission to focus on those states where the pain is greatest," said Edmundo Gonzalez, a vice president of the New York City- based company, which has preparation programs for state tests in Florida, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas. "We focus on places where there's risk both to the administrators and the students."

In developing their professional- development seminars and materials, officials at Kaplan say they have also honed their programs to serve those schools and districts where the need is the greatest, reaching out specifically to educators in schools—particularly those in urban areas—with large number of students who do not do well on state tests.

Mark F. Bernstein, the president of K-12 learning services at Kaplan, said Kaplan's professional-development seminars focus on teaching educators how to integrate test-taking strategies and thinking skills more consistently into instruction throughout the year.

"Our materials are designed to be utilized with students who are not in your B-plus category," Mr. Bernstein said. "It was a conscious effort, because that's where the greatest need exists, and that's where we felt we could play the most significant role."

Vol. 20, Issue 26, Page 27

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