Marketing to the Test

Companies envision profits in computer-based assessment

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Since the 1920s, the business of school testing has largely been a province of educational publishing. The same companies that published American textbooks also distributed such well-known assessments as the Stanford Achievement Test, the California Achievement Test, and the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

The big publishers cornered the market for decades largely because of the high upfront costs of developing and validating test content as well as the complicated nature of distributing and scoring paper tests.

But computer-based testing does not rely on paper publishing or labor-intensive scoring and reporting tasks. The new tests are all made up of digital ones and zeros that can be zapped back and forth over the Internet and rapidly scored by software programs. So the market for computer-based school testing should be about as wide open as other technology and Internet business niches, right?

Well, yes and no.

There is considerable activity among start-up businesses in computer-based assessment, as well as interest in the sector from slightly older companies that have added testing to their business models. But in the long run, industry experts say, traditional test publishers such as CTB/McGraw-Hill are likely to end up as the dominant players in technology-based assessment. “The traditional publishers who have staked a claim in this space will continue to do well,” says Jim McVety, a senior analyst at Eduventures, a Boston research firm that studies the education industry. “But when it comes to classroom-based assessment, there is room for smaller companies to enter the market.”

Demand for Instant Results

Eduventures estimates that educational testing in the United States was a $925 million industry in 2002. But revenues related to online and computer-based assessment represented no more than $50 million of that, McVety says.

For the traditional publishers, research on technologybased assessment has been going on for years. They have realized that paper-and-pencil tests are not likely to dominate forever. It’s not that the printing of test booklets and score sheets is unduly expensive. But the costs related to keeping them secure and processing their results begin to add up for the publishers.

Score reports can take weeks or months to appear after the administration of a paper assessment, a model that does not satisfy educators’ growing interest in near-instant results.

“The old way of doing it was like an autopsy,” says Michael A. Sicuro, the chief financial officer of Lightspan Inc., an educational technology company that has recently moved into computer-based testing. “Educators got access to the test results after their students were long gone. What good is it after the students are gone?”

San Diego-based Lightspan is best known for educational software that runs on Sony PlayStation game consoles. But its assessment products, led by the eduTest classroom testing software, run on personal computers. The company has developed an item bank of some 65,000 test questions for its eduTest program.

“If you are a 4th grade math teacher and want to test your students on fractions, you can go make a quiz of 10 or 15 questions from our item bank,” Sicuro says.

“You can get the standard Happy Meal with everything in it, or you can build your own Happy Meal” out of the test offerings, jokes Sicuro.

Four New Mexico districts have been piloting Lightspan’s eduTest service this year and have been pleased with the results, says Steven A. Sanchez, the acting assistant superintendent for learning services in the state department of education.

“The districts thought this was very user-friendly,” he says. “The teachers can customize it, they can run reports, and they can disaggregate the results.”

Beyond Bubble Sheets

Schools are now under a marketing siege from companies such as Lightspan and many others with similar assessment products, many of which are integrated into larger “classroom management” programs that also help teachers organize lesson plans and keep records. The demands of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 and the growing importance of high-stakes state tests are fueling the interest.

Some of those programs come from traditional publishers. CTB/McGraw-Hill, based in Monterey, Calif., offers such paper assessments as the California Achievement Test and the TerraNova testing program, but also a relatively new online assessment program for the classroom called i-know. The program includes both multiple-choice and constructed-response—short-answer or essay—items and is currently being offered in reading and mathematics for grades 3-8.

Micheal H. Kean, the vice president for public and governmental affairs at CTB/McGraw-Hill, notes that the No Child Left Behind law is motivating principals to seek more comprehensive assessment data.

“There’s a tremendous, tremendous need for the principal ... to get feedback continuously from every teacher in his or her school building,” he says. “Technology is really the foundation that will allow that to occur.”

Pearson Education, the educational publishing division of London-based Pearson Inc., is another major textbook publisher. But it wasn’t heavily into testing until a few years ago, when it bought National Computer Systems, which was mostly a test-scoring company.

Now that Pearson has absorbed NCS, the result has been a slate of new computer and Web-based products for schools, including an online assessment program that is part of the company’s Concert classroom-management Web tool.

Peter Jovanovich, the chief executive officer of Pearson Education, which is providing paid sponsorship for the online version of Technology Counts 2003, says computer-based assessment programs for the classroom are poised “for an explosion.”

But he agrees with Kean that the traditional publishers have a leg up on newer, technology-based companies because of their commitment to educational content.

“It comes down to who understands the market and whether you have a track record,” Jovanovich says. “Those things can’t be invented overnight just because you sit in front of a personal computer.”

But McVety of Eduventures points to Vantage Learning, a relative newcomer to online assessment, as an upstart poised for success without the pedigree of traditional test publishing or services.

Vantage, based in Yardley, Pa., was founded in 1998 amid the boom in technology businesses as a purely Web-based assessment model. Among its products are the Vantage Learning Platform, a set of tools for developing online assessments; and IntelliMetric, an automated scoring technology for essay questions.

Another company that isn’t a traditional test publisher is Scantron Inc., based in Irvine, Calif. If that name rings a bell, it may be because Scantron scanners have dominated the school market for some 30 years.

But Scantron, a subsidiary of the publicly traded John H. Harland Co., is now making two major forays into technology-based assessment. One is its Internet-based Performance Series classroom assessments in subjects such as reading and math.

The other is a product called Classroom Wizard, which is an assessment program for personal digital assistants, or PDAs, such as Palms, Handspring Visors, or Pocket PCs. Students can use the devices to take quizzes and tests, then beam their answers to the front of the class. Scantron’s program can grade them and report the results in a variety of ways.

Joanna Goldston, a marketing manager at Scantron, insists that quiz security is not an issue for schools using the system, even in an age when some students program test answers or other helpful information into their graphing calculators.

“When a student logs in to the Classroom Wizard system to take a quiz, the program locks down other applications on the PDA,” she says. “This is the cutting edge.”

Wireless Responses

Other companies are also trying to sell schools assessment-related programs on nontraditional hardware devices. McVety says some of those have grown out of wireless technology used in bars for interactive trivia games, while others evolved from the world of political and consumer market research.

For example, Denton, Texas-based eInstruction Inc. sells a Classroom Performance System featuring a proprietary base station and handheld gizmos that students can use to click the answers to games or quizzes.

The New York City-based Wireless Generation Inc. and the Washington-based eLearning Dynamics are also tech start-ups with Palm-based applications for classroom assessment.

Chase Weir, the chairman and president of eLearning Dynamics, has a background in consumer research with companies that test pilot television shows with audiences. His program for personal digital assistants is synchronous, he boasts—a quality, he explains, that allows a teacher to track students’ progress even as they are taking a quiz, without having to wait for the answers to be beamed into a base computer.

Weir’s idea evolved from audience-survey technology devised by a company that grew out of the Hollywood studio Columbia Pictures. That technology, Weir says, is now used by entertainment executives to test audience reactions to TV pilots, as well as by “political campaigns and by law firms to test likely jury reactions in multibillion-dollar trials.”

He believes that one day Americans will be able to devote the same technological innovation and resources to measuring classroom achievement as they now do to winning lawsuits or coming up with the next hit TV show.

Vol. 22, Issue 35, Pages 36, 38

Published in Print: May 8, 2003, as Marketing to the Test
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