Special Report

Prepping for the Big Test

By Rhea R. Borja — September 12, 2017 9 min read
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As test-preparation materials leap off the printed page and onto the Web, an increasing number of states and districts are turning to online test-prep programs to help raise student scores on high-stakes assessments, Advanced Placement tests, and college-entrance exams.

California, Florida, and Massachusetts are among the states signing up for Web-based remedial offerings and other academic help, spurred on by stiffer state and federal accountability requirements.

Soon, experts predict, most states and districts will use online test prep because of its flexibility, its reasonable cost, and some promising, though very preliminary, results on its effects.

“This is definitely not a fad—you’ll see Web-based assessments broadly adopted in the next several years,” says Adam J. Newman, the vice president of research for Eduventures Inc., a Boston-based research firm that tracks the K-12 market.

“Print will never disappear, but institutions will have more cost-effective solutions with the Web. Also, the ability for educators to customize their assessments will really enhance what they already do [for students].”

The many companies that have jumped into the test-prep market range from the well-established, New York City-based Princeton Review to small, aggressive upstarts such as Test University, also in New York, and the Washington-based Smarthinking Inc.

The money has followed. The Princeton Review’s K-12 revenue shot up 43 percent last year, boosted in large part by a $2.5 million boom in online test-prep subscriptions and other supplemental programs, according to the Heller Reports, an educational newsletter and market-research publisher based in New York.

Last year, more than 200,000 students in 60 countries signed up for the Princeton Review’s online demonstrations of such tests as the SAT and state exit exams, according to Drew Deutsch, an assistant vice president of the company.

“Our online test prep is growing by leaps and bounds,” he says.

Not for Everybody

Eduventure’s Newman and other experts caution, though, that online test preparation is only as good as a student’s motivation to use it and a teacher’s ability to analyze the data gleaned from it. Web-based test prep is a tool to improve learning, they emphasize, not a magic bullet.

“Teachers need to know how to use this resource and apply it to their classroom pedagogy,” Newman says. “Otherwise, it’s useless.”

Online test prep isn’t for everybody, adds Burck Smith, the chief executive officer of Smarthinking, which serves 29,000 high school and college students in at least 15 states. He says students who use the method must be highly self-motivated or have teachers monitoring them. He found that out with students who had failed their state assessments the first time and didn’t seem especially impelled on their own to improve their scores.

“With any online test-prep program, you’re not going to see a lot of success unless there’s someone there making sure the students are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Smith says. “Motivation is a huge factor.”

And critics of online test preparation wonder whether its approach of drill and repetition is supplanting more lively, creative teacher-led instruction. Are the students taking online test prep getting only the chunks of information they need to know to improve their scores, instead of a more balanced education?

“Web-based, online computerized coaching pretty much focuses on the basics, so the kids pretty much lose out on everything else,” says Robert A. Schaeffer, the public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a test-reform advocacy group based in Cambridge, Mass. “What is tested is what is taught.”

’It’s a Conversation’

But supporters of online test prep point out that the programs can be customized with lessons and practice tests to fit each student’s academic needs, can provide a wealth of student data, and can be used anytime—in class during the day, and at home at night and on weekends.

The Princeton Review’s Homeroom.com, for example, has a 130,000-question bank for grades 3-12, which districts and states can mine to produce online practice tests and courses specifically aligned to state exams. Its online SAT-prep program offers 185 interactive, multimedia lessons and drills, and an online coach to answer questions 24 hours a day

Test University’s online SAT course has interactive “micro-courses” covering 145 basic skills, 18 practice tests, a 2,000-word “vocabulary lab,” and two full-length SAT tests with immediate feedback. TestU also features lessons covering 55 test-taking strategies

Smarthinking, meanwhile, uses “e-tutors,” or online instructors, and digital whiteboards to give students more intensive tutoring help. Students can communicate with e-tutors in real time, as well as submit questions or assignments to the instructors online and receive feedback within 24 hours, the company says.

The virtual whiteboards act much like real chalkboards: A student can write out or draw a multistep trigonometry problem using an online toolbox of mathematical symbols. The e-tutor sees the student’s work, and can comment on the whiteboard and help correct any missteps.

The 12,000-student Whitfield County school system in rural northern Georgia uses Smarthinking in part to help its 164 Spanish-speaking, English-as-a-second-language students pass the Georgia Graduation Test. For two hours a day, ESL-trained, Spanish-speaking math tutors answer students’ questions online, says Lorijo Calhoun, the district’s ESL instructor.

“It’s a conversation,” she says. “It’s literally back and forth.”

In Maryland’s 107,400-student Baltimore County system, teenagers preparing for the PSAT, the SAT, or the ACT can log on to TestU’s Web site and get extra help on their vocabulary, for example, or more in-depth information on algebraic algorithms.

Students first take a 30-minute diagnostic pretest, or “brainscan,” that TestU uses as a baseline for the online curriculum. If a student does poorly on grammar but well on comprehension, for example, TestU offers more intensive work on the former. Like many other school districts and states, the Baltimore County system is making TestU available to all students, but especially pupils from low-income families.

“We want to ensure equity of access,” says Barbara Dezmon, the assistant to the superintendent of the Baltimore County district, which does not include the city of Baltimore. “It started as an effort to assist schools that had significant minority student populations, significant poor populations, and it spread from there.”

Diane Young, an assistant principal at the 1,350-student Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore County, says that online test preparation is more helpful than the school’s traditional SAT-prep class because instruction is customized for each student—something a teacher with 25 students cannot do.

“It allows a teacher to say to a student, ‘You’re having problems with fractions, and I can’t spend any more time in class, so go on TestU and work on it, and I’ll check your answers,’ ” she says.

’I Felt More Prepared’

But online test prep is not a substitute for a teacher, Young and other educators stress. Instead, it’s another tool that can enhance the effectiveness of in-class instruction.

Glenn Finnerty, a test-prep teacher at the 3,200-student Timber Creek High School in Orlando, Fla., says his students use both a workbook and individualized online mathematics and reading courses by TestU to help them improve their scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

During class, Finnerty walks around his room and monitors students as they work on the computer course and practice tests. He can also view a variety of computer reports that analyze student performance and participation rates.

One is a group diagnostic report, which aggregates and analyzes students’ responses to test questions, while a group learning report shows the skills and strategies studied on a course, and evaluates the students’ quiz performance. A group performance report shows student participation and performance rates, the frequency of tests taken, the average percent of questions answered correctly, and the distribution of student responses to each question.

The combination of in-class instruction, online coursework, and teacher monitoring is essential in trying to help low-scoring and perhaps poorly motivated students improve their test scores, Finnerty says.

“It’s a complement to what we already have with our book work,” he says. “If teachers just say to the kids, ‘Go at it,’ and leave them at the computers by themselves, that’s not good.”

One of his students, 15-year-old Davis Ho, recently took the FCAT, and says that online test prep did its job. In fact, he says, many of the questions in his testprep program were similar to the questions on the state assessment.

“I felt more confident, more prepared,” says the 9th grader.

Ho says that in some ways, online test preparation is more helpful than a teacher because it allows him to move at his own pace. “You can go back and review the stuff,” he says. “You can take your time and read it over and over again without having to frustrate anybody.”

He and others suggest that the main difficulty in using Web-based test prep is the tendency of computers to freeze up. Technical glitches greatly hampered Timber Creek High’s ability to use the TestU program last year, school staff members say, but emphasize there are fewer such problems this year.

Ho replies that while that may be so, glitches are still not uncommon. “Sometimes, the program kicks me off,” he says.

Often, glitches occur because of a miscommunication between TestU and the school district’s filtering and security software, says Nicole Marshall, TestU’s vice president for educational research. That’s what happened to Timber Creek.

So county technology administrators readjusted the settings in the security software to accommodate TestU. If the school is still experiencing glitches, it could be that a lot of students are using the program and other technology at peak times, slowing down the system, Marshall adds.

Buying in Bulk

Web-based test prep tends to be cheaper for school districts than face-to-face preparation classes are. Costs vary widely, but they fall well under the hundreds of dollars a test-prep course would cost an individual student.

Massachusetts, for example, paid $200,000 to the Princeton Review this school year to help up to 80,000 high school students statewide prepare for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS.

On the west coast, the University of California system signed a three-year, $125,000 contract with Number2.com, a division of Xap Corp., an education information-management-systems company based in Los Angeles. Number2.com provides online SAT and ACT preparation for all California high school students for free.

Research on the results of online test preparation is sparse, but preliminary results of one analysis show online test prep can be one factor that helps improve student test scores.

For instance, 75 percent of high school students who had previously failed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills in the 211,000-student Houston school district improved their TAAS reading scores by 29 percent on average in a pilot test-prep program, according to TestU, whose services the Houston district uses.

Jo Beth Harris, the director of Houston’s Virtual School, who administers the online test-prep program, says that last summer 50 seniors who previously failed the TAAS spent time with the online test-prep program for two hours a day.

The result the second time they took the TAAS? “They all passed,” Harris says.

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2003 edition of Education Week


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