It’s Come To This

By Christopher Shea — May 01, 2000 20 min read
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For-profit companies are selling the idea that schools should be test- prep centers. And educators are buying in.

For people who worry that standardized tests are warping teaching, what’s going on at Winslow Township’s School No. 4 might be the horror at the end of the line, the confirmation of all their fears. It’s also very cute.

Princeton Review, the test-preparation company that made its name teaching rich New York City kids how to beat the SAT, has been tutoring Winslow’s teachers. In February, at the invitation of school officials, a handful of Review staffers drove from New York to this bedroom community, midway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, to spend a day demonstrating the tricks of the standardized-test trade. They told teachers about Joe Bloggs, the fictional not-too-dumb, not-too-bright student who scores exactly at the median on standardized exams. They explained how poor Bloggs always goes for the obvious answer-say “peanut butter” and he can’t help but think “jelly"-and how testmakers throw in “distractor” answers to trip him up. And they talked about “P.O.E.,” the process-of-elimination approach that helps students push their scores past Bloggs’.

A few days later, the teachers, in turn, passed the tidbits on to . . . 3rd graders? That’s right: The Winslow school district is now doing Princeton Review- endorsed test prep with 9- and 10-year-olds. For six weeks this spring, select Winslow students met twice a week, after school, to gear up for district and state tests.

In one of the final sessions at School No. 4, Trish Swenson, a soft-contoured, kindly voiced teacher, walked 3rd graders through P.O.E. She taped several statements to the classroom chalkboard-"A week has 168 hours in it"; “The Earth is flat"; “The moon is made of green cheese.” She told her charges to think of these statements as answers on a multiple-choice test. Even if you don’t know the question that’s been asked, she said, which of these can you cross out?

“The Earth is flat” filled the room with giggles. The kids weren’t so sure about the others. “The moon is made of cheese,” one red-haired girl solemnly lectured a dubious neighbor. “But it’s not green cheese!”

OK, so there are limits to what test prep can do for a 3rd grader’s worldview. But the company and district are excited about this pilot. Princeton Review flew Winslow Township’s director of teaching and learning, Marcia Zaccaria, to the annual meeting of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, held in New Orleans at the end of March, to tell other schools about it. Princeton Review says 600 of 5,700 conference-goers RSVP’d immediately to a mailed invitation to the session-an astonishing response.

We are, it would seem, entering a new era of standardized-test prep, one in which educators become test coaches and vice versa.

We are, it would seem, entering a new era of standardized-test prep, one in which educators become test coaches and vice versa. The first era began with the founding of Kaplan Inc. in the 1950s. As Nicholas Lemann explains in his recent book The Big Test, a chronicle of the SAT and the company that created it, the Educational Testing Service, the self-serious Kaplan catered to middle-class students who saw admission to selective colleges as their ticket into the ranks of the nation’s elite. The second era was kicked off in the 1980s by Princeton Review, which cultivated an image as the subversive smart-ass in the back of the prep-school class. Princeton Review mocked standardized testing, portraying itself as an ally of students who wanted to thwart Big Brother, the ETS.

Throughout both these eras, schools treated test-prep companies as though they were shysters. Educators viewed the SAT and other tests as crude instruments. Test prep, whether it raised scores or not, was a waste of time.

Today, however, schools have changed their tune. Parents, school boards, and politicians are keeping an ever-closer eye on standardized tests. As a result, educators are growing hungry for test prep. They no longer scoff at Kaplan and the other companies; they welcome them with open arms. In the District of Columbia this year, the school system brought in Princeton Review to tutor its teachers in the secrets of the SAT. Now the teachers give test-prep classes on Saturdays and during summers at high schools throughout the city. That’s a pro bono program, but for-profit contracts with schools are one of the fastest-growing parts of the test-prep business, which, according to some analysts, generates as much as $100 million annually from SAT courses alone. Consider the phenomenal growth of Kaplan, which boasts the most contracts for in-school test prep. It has deals with 1,000 public and private schools-five times as many as two years ago.

It’s not just schools or districts that are investing in test prep. California this year began handing out grants to help high schools in poor communities pay for it. Thanks to a $10 million program pushed by Tom Hayden, the ex-radical activist who’s now a California state senator, 481 high schools and 45,000 students had access to SAT test prep that they might not have had otherwise.

While the SAT is still the engine driving the test-prep trend, new state and local exams are fueling the boom as well, as more officials use exams to judge the success or failure of teaching. Coaching is penetrating classrooms for tots as well as teens. Test Masters, a Texas-based company started by a property-tax consultant who whipped up prep material for his 6th grade son in his spare time, charges schools $1,000 a month for advice and drills pegged to various state tests. Princeton Review and Kaplan recently unveiled Web-based tutoring services for younger students.

School-sanctioned test prep “is exploding,” says Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which opposes most standardized tests but takes no position on coaching. “When superintendents, principals, teachers, and school boards are going to be judged on test scores, anyone who is surprised by the expansion of coaching in that direction is on a different planet.”

Jeff Kelley, executive director of Princeton Review for the Washington, D.C., region, notes that when he started with the company eight years ago, “school administrators and teachers looked at for-profit test prep companies sideways. They didn’t want to get involved with them, didn’t trust them, didn’t think it was right.”

“Basically,” Kelley adds, “mainstream education came our way. Schools are all about test prep now.”

Some people see this as an ugly manifestation of America’s obsession with testing. Yet, even progressive educators are making an uneasy peace with coaching.

Not surprisingly, some people see this as an ugly manifestation of America’s obsession with testing. Yet, for complicated reasons, even progressive educators are making an uneasy peace with coaching. Some who think the tests are a contrived, ill-conceived way to measure student performance have endorsed test prep as a way to fight fire with fire. Rich kids, after all, buy $700-plus private sessions from Princeton Review. So as long as the tests exist, why shouldn’t public schools try to level the playing field?

Test prep’s new popularity raises some perplexing questions. Though some schools are buying prep packages to help kids who can’t afford them, inequities remain; critics charge that the cheaper programs often purchased by middle- or lower-class communities are rip-offs. Then there’s the question of whether any of it-even the pricey courses-boosts scores. Perhaps most troublesome, though, is the peculiar logic at work in the test-prep frenzy. After all, if a few short workshops can raise test scores-even lift them by hundreds of points, as some companies claim-how good can the tests be?

Where there is a trend, of course, there is money to be made. While Princeton Review and Kaplan have retooled to meet the fresh demand, one company seems especially well-positioned to ride the Zeitgeist. Scholastic Testing Systems, a blandly named corporation based in the Northern Virginia suburb of Alexandria, is selling the idea that education and test preparation are one and the same. Its promotional copy goes so far as to quote Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago in the mid-century and an advocate of a “great books” curriculum, on the importance of education for young people. For a company that gives 17-year-olds tips on answering analogy questions, that takes chutzpah.

Scholastic opened its doors 12 years ago when an engineer in California designed a piece of software to help students drill for the SAT. The company remained sleepy-a part-time gig for its founder-until it was acquired by aggressive new owners two and a half years ago. More than 2,700 schools now own the basic software, and Scholastic has beefed up its offerings to include training, workbooks, guest speakers, and consultations on incorporating test prep into school curriculum. Since 1998, the company has grown sixfold, and its officials expect $4 million in sales by the end of this year.

Scholastic’s business plan hinges on the idea that high school teachers, given some help, can easily do the job often farmed out to companies like Kaplan. “Why shouldn’t every student have access to good preparation?” asks the company’s CEO and part-owner, William Zuberbuhler, a retired Navy oceanographer whose silver hair is swept back in a low-profile pompadour. “And since we have a public school system, why not do it through our public schools?”

One district that has bought into this idea is the Charles County, Maryland, school system. Charles County straddles the line marking the end of Washington, D.C.'s suburban sprawl and the start of Maryland’s rural southern edge. Its point man on testing is the assistant superintendent of instruction, John Cox, an enthusiastic, round-faced fellow. When Cox took his job two and a half years ago, he was told: Raise test scores or else. Average SAT scores were hovering about 30 points below the state average of 1016. County commissioners pledged an additional $25 million for the school system over four years but tied the money to several improvements. One was that SAT scores would climb at least five points above the state average by 2005.

Faced with this challenge, Cox tackled the curriculum first. The county put more kids on track for calculus, bumping up the percentage of 6th graders taking pre-algebra from 4 percent to 13 percent. It also added a 9th grade honors geometry course. “We had long-term strategies in place, but we couldn’t wait five years for results,” Cox says. “It’s a political issue as much as an educational issue.”

Where there is a trend, of course, there is money to be made.

For the past two years, the county has shelled out $20,000 annually for the Scholastic Testing Systems regimen. During the summer, it offered a dozen SAT prep classes. Now, college-bound juniors and seniors in the district’s five high schools spend a class period each day, for four weeks, working on Scholastic software. The school system also contracted through the company with an SAT expert to give strategy briefings. English teachers pass out an SAT “word of the day.” Students watch “Video Vocab” tapes featuring clips of popular movies with subtitles that summarize the action using typical SAT words-Scholastic’s effort to reach a video-addled generation.

Cox claims Charles County is keeping test scores in perspective. “I don’t get into test scores for test scores’ sake,” he says. “We use them only as an indicator of our instructional program and what children are learning.” Scholastic software points to gaps in student learning, he contends; Charles County kids are weak on analogies and, in the math section, quantitative comparisons. “If you’re going to address the issue, you have to know what the issue is,” Cox says.

Still, it’s clear that almost everyone in Charles County has to keep an eye on the scores. At Westlake High, administrators have gone so far as to install a shrine of sorts to the school’s SAT stars. Photographs of Westlake’s top scorers hang in a first-floor display case, the kind that’s normally filled with sports trophies. On the left is the “1,400 Club,” an elite group of two, and, below it, the “1,300 Club,” a cohort of nine. On the right are the shining faces of 16 students whose scores have jumped 100 points.

In its campaign to raise scores, Charles County has appointed a lieutenant in each of its buildings. At Westlake, that’s Ron Stup, an amiable vice principal with a flat, gravelly voice. The display case was his idea.

After a little disciplinary duty-a mild chewing out of a student wearing an “Absolut Porn Star” T-shirt-Stup gives a quick tour of the school’s test-prep machinery. In one room, students huddle over a practice test. Across the hall, kids stream into a computer lab for their first SAT workshop.

Students are exempted from regular instruction for one period a day, on a rotating schedule, to work with computers. The kids today are plugging in answers from their practice test. The software then breaks down the results according to 61 “skills” and peppers students with questions in their 10 weakest areas.

This particular class is not exactly filled with grinding, hypercompetitive geeks. One kid with a crew cut and a plaid shirt begins the class by loudly asking if he can surf the Web rather than work on the software. Later, he and his buddies brag about their low scores.

For these juniors, the SAT and the angst-filled college-application process lie ahead. Members of the class of 2000, meanwhile, have already been through the Scholastic-devised mill.

“Last year, the SAT was stressed so much,” says Stephanie Clark, an articulate 17-year-old who has been accepted at Maryland’s St. Mary’s College. “Everything was about getting our scores up, making sure we did our best.” For Stephanie, some of the pressure was self-induced. Her family makes a big deal of her academic prowess, and she was afraid she’d be thought a fraud if her scores were low.

Stephanie didn’t find the computer workshop very helpful. (“It was like a study hall with your friends.”) But she attributes a jump in her verbal score-from “five-something” to 660-to an SAT pep talk the school sponsored at the local Jaycee Hall. Among other tips, the speaker suggested marking words in the analogy section with pluses and minuses to get a sense of their relation.

Based on the practice-test data it tracks, Westlake is predicting a jump in scores. But it also looks as if a slightly smaller proportion of students will take the SAT than in the past. Apparently, all the drill and practice persuaded some of the weaker students that they could live without the test.

Meanwhile, Ron Stup is already looking ahead to next year. He’s thinking of adding a “1,200 Club” to the board. And two juniors have already scored 1,550. “I’m hoping at least one of them can hit 1,600,” he says. “I hope to have a ‘1,600 Club’ someday.”

Charles County is a happy customer of Scholastic Testing Systems. But at least one of its competitors thinks the company is selling schools a bill of goods. “Their pitch is totally wrong from all my experience of the last 15 years,” says Jay Rosner, an official with the Princeton Review’s nonprofit foundation who’s helping the company meet the new demand for test prep in California.

‘I tell teachers, ‘You folks are doing the really important work. You’re teaching basketball, I’m teaching free throws.’’

Jay Rosner,
Princeton Review,

The key to SAT prep, Rosner contends, is good SAT tutors-and by that he means tutors who can score over 700 on the section they are teaching and who like the test enough to fiddle with it constantly, learning its ins and outs. Most public school teachers hate the SAT, he says. Moreover, teachers on average scored poorly on the test as students.

Public schools should get more involved in prepping students for the test than they have in the past, Rosner says, but they should call in experts to do the tutoring. Like free throws in basketball, he explains, the SAT is contrived and requires a unique set of skills. “I tell teachers, ‘You folks are doing the really important work. You’re teaching basketball, I’m teaching free throws.’ ”

Princeton Review also claims its approach to test prep is more sophisticated than Scholastic’s. Its tutors focus on test-taking strategies-in other words, they show kids how tests are designed and how answers can be derived from knowing that design. Putting students through repeated practice tests and endless computer drills is not at all the same thing, the company contends.

Scholastic, in turn, claims its program has boosted the scores of 2 million students by an average of 100 points. And all for as little as $2.50 a kid. Princeton Review, it charges, sacrifices basic math and verbal skills for pointless tricks.

Hearing both pitches, one is tempted to say: Let the market decide; may

the strongest company win. But with schools taking up test prep, what kind of training to do has become, essentially, a public-policy question. Tax dollars are at stake.

Nowhere are there more dollars at stake than in California. Thanks to the new Hayden grant program, companies are battling for test-prep contracts with schools across the state. Hayden originally pitched a pilot that would have cost $500,000. But when he and others realized that test prep qualified for federal funding designed to expand access to college, the proposal grew to $10 million.

Politicians of both parties have concluded that test prep has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

California’s ban on affirmative action in its university system means that the SAT takes on greater weight in college admissions-a fact that worries civil rights groups and others concerned about racial and cultural bias in the test. As expected, Democrats rallied behind the bill. To Hayden’s surprise, however, Republicans loved it, too. It swept through the legislature and was signed into law by then-Governor Pete Wilson in September 1998. Guillermo Mayer, Hayden’s legislative director, explains the program’s appeal: “Liberal and progressive lawmakers liked the idea of leveling the playing field in terms of educational access. Conservatives liked the idea of promoting a test like the SAT.”

California’s decision is a watershed for several reasons. The largest state in the country has affirmed the notion that test preparation works. Politicians of both parties agreed that test prep can play a role in deciding where-and even whether-kids go to college. They concluded coaching has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Eisenhower High School in Rialto, part of San Bernardino County, received one of the largest grants: $60,000. In 1998-99, only 67 of 3,200 Eisenhower students took the SAT. This year, 308 students enrolled in after-school tutoring sessions. (The law prohibits sessions during the school day.) With the grant, the school can also cover students’ cost of registering for the test. “It’s a wonderful thing,” says Senida Wade, who oversees the project at Eisenhower. The effects are so significant that the school applied for $99,000 for next year.

Eisenhower opted to use its own teachers as tutors, paying them an hourly wage on top of their salaries. It also bought software called “One on One with the SAT” from the College Board, which administers the test. Wade says she “absolutely” thinks teachers can do as good a job as the private companies. Plus, this way, if the state ever drops the program, Eisenhower can sustain it in some form.

The rest of the country is watching California. In January, in his State of the Union address, President Clinton endorsed, but provided no money for, a national plan similar to Hayden’s. And the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is lobbying states to follow California’s lead, arguing that better preparation can narrow the score gap between minority and white students.

But in the rush to help kids ace the SAT and other tests, few people are stopping to ask a basic question: Does this stuff work? And if it does work-if scores can be raised in a matter of weeks-what does that say about the prolific use of these scores to evaluate students and schools?

The guardians of the SAT-ETS and the College Board-continue to insist that anyone who buys test prep might as well have dropped the cash for a gold-plated rabbit’s foot. The College Board’s research suggests that commercial courses raise verbal and math scores on the test a combined 26 points-a piddling amount. (The companies claim gains of as much as 150 points.) Students should not walk into the test cold, testmakers say, but taking the very similar PSAT is an adequate warm-up. Kids might also work through the free sample test the College Board provides. Nothing else has any effect, the group insists.

If expensive test prep gives the wealthy an advantage, the class structure is replicated in a new way.

Of course, the SAT’s sponsors have no choice but to stand against test prep. If they were to admit that scores could be boosted through tutoring or software, they would also have to acknowledge that the SAT is too variable to be a good measure of academic ability. The SAT was created, in part, to give smart kids who aren’t blue-blood prep schoolers a shot at college-to create a true meritocracy. If expensive test prep gives the wealthy an advantage, however, the class structure is simply replicated in a new way.

Test prep’s soaring popularity has forced the SAT’s sponsors into an awkward, even contradictory, position. The “One on One” software that the College Board sells, for example, is not too different from the computer tutorials it regularly trashes. What’s more, the group backed the Hayden bill in California-legislation that poured millions of dollars into practices that, if the group’s own research is to be believed, have zero effect.

College Board officials explain their support of California’s program rather sheepishly. “It certainly wasn’t the College Board’s idea to take the money and put it into test prep,” says Lorraine Shoaf, associate director of California projects for the group. “But it was going to happen, and we said, ‘Let’s support the goal here.’ ” Shoaf herself now organizes sessions in which teachers are briefed on how to prepare students for the test.

The College Board’s tortured statements haven’t gone unnoticed, particularly among the companies it has scorned for so long. Rosner of the Princeton Review says bluntly: “The College Board has moved into complete hypocrisy on this.”

Educators, too, find themselves in an uncomfortable position. The very thing they once denounced they now embrace. The test-prep companies, of course, are doing their best to ease the collective conscience of educators who are ambivalent about this sea change. Princeton Review, for one, tones down its subversive persona in certain markets. It calls its online service for younger kids, a soothingly educational-sounding rubric.

Some educators have convinced themselves that there’s no contradiction between education and test prep. Winslow’s Marcia Zaccaria emphatically distinguishes between what Princeton Review does and teaching to the test. “When you teach to the test,” she says firmly, “you water down the curriculum. We aren’t interested in that.”

In fact, Zaccaria goes so far as to credit Princeton Review with kicking off a revolution in learning. “Why not make our students cognizant of the strategies that they need for success?” she says. “With just a slight shift in approach, you are going to create a very different kind of learner. You are going to go from the rote to a strategic approach.”

Not all the Winslow teachers cheered the Princeton Review pilot at the outset. Venice DeGregorio, one of the School No. 4 teachers, says some of her colleagues asked, “Why do we need this? The test is just one measure of how students are doing. They are 8 and 9 years old. Why are we doing this?”

DeGregorio herself resisted the idea at first. But having taught the course, she says: “I would fight to do it again.” The kids were strikingly attentive, she says, viewing the class as an honor. One boy was so jealous of the kids in the program that he sneaked into it, swearing that his mother had signed him up late. Mom only found out when he failed to show up at home one afternoon and she drove to the school, looking for him.

In a regular 3rd grade math class, one little boy recently got his first “100" on a quiz. When the surprised teacher asked what he did differently, he said, simply: “P.O.E.”

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