By guest blogger Leo Doran
The Iowa nonprofit that makes the ACT college entrance exam will now offer students affordable, online, personalized test prep—the latest salvo in an intensifying battle between the creators of the ACT and the SAT for market share and state contracts.
The ACT Online Prep Program uses software built by a Chicago company, BenchPrep, formerly known as Watermelon Express, as its “learning engine,” according to Ashish Rangnekar, the company’s CEO. The product is intended to help the ACT “play an active role in getting kids ready for college"—a shift for the ACT, which has historically “maintained an arms-length distance from test preparation services” Rangnekar said.
Paul Weeks, ACT’s senior vice president for client relations, said in an interview that the test-maker is seeking to create a product that would complement and replace some of the “static” and “linear” test prep resources they have provided in the past, with a personalized online mobile system that doesn’t have an overwhelming cost barrier
A one year subscription to the online product costs $39.95, although districts and schools can license the product, and students eligible for a fee waiver will have free access, according to the ACT. Waiver eligibility requirements stipulate that a student must be enrolled in 11th or 12th grade, must be a citizen or testing in the US, and must meet a base level of economic need, such as qualifying for free or reduced lunch.
In a December press release, the ACT, said that in 2014-2015 over 700,000 students took advantage of fee waivers at a value of $34.4 million. Providing access to the ACT Online Prep Program to these students is valued at an additional $27.9 million, according to the nonprofit’s calculations.
Weeks voiced concern about the growth of the test prep industry generally, saying that he always tells parents to seek out low-cost or free resources before breaking the bank on classes that on the whole show unclear value. Weeks says that the best preparation a student can do for the test is to take good courses in high school and find calm and confidence before the exam.
In the past, industry watchdogs like FairTest, which tends to be critical of standardized tests like the ACT, have criticized similar deals—such as a partnership between Kahn Academy and the College Board, which makes the SAT—on the grounds that these resources do not go far enough in disrupting a market that skews unfairly to families that can afford personalized workshops and face-to-face tutoring.
The resource ACT is providing is intended help students by giving them a review of content covered by the exam, and personalizing lessons and problem sets based on areas of weakness.
Another important factor the software takes into account is time remaining before the exam. Because “effective content review must be done over time,” Weeks says that a student who only has a few days with the software to review before test day will get a different priority task list than a student with many months.
The company ACT is working with, BenchPrep, got its start in 2009 by adapting textbook material produced by major education publishers to a gamified, interactive platform directly for students. In the past year, the company has shifted its focus to offering back-end solutions for companies looking to develop their own educational tools.
The test prep program that BenchPrep built with the ACT is intended to be highly interactive and synchronize across devices. True to many of BenchPrep’s earlier educational resources, the product prominently features “game mechanics” including “digital badges and actual games” as part of what Rangnekar calls a “robust instructional design model.”
Rangnekar said his company’s contract with ACT will extend “for the next few years” during which time BenchPrep will continue to provide support for the product with a particular eye towards better mobile compatibility and increased personalization.
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- 2015 SAT, ACT Scores Suggest Many Students Aren’t College-Ready
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.