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Crash Course: Students who spend hundreds of dollars on SAT-prep courses don't get much for their money, according to research underwritten by the group that sponsors the test. The study, commissioned by the College Board, found that students who paid for commercial preparation courses improved their scores only a little more than those who studied on their own or took such classes in school. On average, coaching programs increased verbal scores by 8 points and mathematics scores by 18 points, according to the study done by two researchers at the Educational Testing Service, which writes the SAT. Those gains are not significant on the 1,600-point test, they said. More than a third of the students who had coaching saw their scores stay the same or fall.

The two largest test-preparation companies in the country immediately denounced the results, saying the research was skewed. Officials from Kaplan Educational Centers and the Princeton Review said students who take their courses gain, on average, more than 100 points on their combined SAT scores.

But the ETS researchers concluded that the companies' estimates "are much too high." In an analysis of 4,200 SAT and Preliminary SAT scores, the researchers found that 12 percent of the tutored students increased their verbal scores by 100 points and that 16 percent raised their math scores by at least that amount. But the verbal scores of 36 percent and the math scores of 28 percent remained the same or fell.

Space Cadets: The ability to visualize a project in several dimensions and to understand mechanics is important for engineers, physical scientists, architects, and artists. But many students with this kind of ability--often referred to as spatial talent--become classic underachievers in school, according to a report in the fall issue of the American Educational Research Journal.

Three researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign sifted through survey data on a national sample of 1,600 gifted high school seniors. Roughly half the students had scored in the top 1 percent of their gender on a test of mathematical skills; the rest had similarly high scores on tests of spatial skills. Though test scores in other subjects showed that all the students were bright and capable, the spatially gifted students succeeded in school at a much lower rate than those with math talents. They had higher grades than the mathematically oriented students in vocational and business courses, but they did worse in science, English, history, social studies, and foreign languages--all the courses required for college admission. Spatially gifted students also received less college guidance from school counselors, were less motivated by their lessons, and aspired to--and achieved--lower levels of academic and occupational success.

Although the data date to 1960, the researchers believe their findings may apply to schools today. In the 1990s, as in the 1960s, college-admissions tests focus narrowly on gauging verbal and mathematical aptitudes. The researchers believe that emphasis influences high school educators to do the same. Students with spatial talents "certainly appear to be discouraged or not encouraged to go on, and that's a waste of their abilities and talents," says Carol Gohm, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois and an author of the report.

Sleepy Heads: Poor sleep routines may depress both teenagers' grades and their moods. That's the conclusion of a new study by sleep researchers Amy Wolfson and Mary Carskadon published in the September issue of the journal Child Development. Previous studies by Carskadon, Wolfson, and others have shown that adolescents get less sleep than they need, thanks to changing body rhythms and high school starting times. In the new study, the researchers sought to better understand how lack of sleep affects teenagers' lives. They asked 3,000 teenagers from six public schools in Rhode Island to report on their sleep habits for two weeks.

They found that students who earned mostly C's, D's, and F's got, on average, 25 minutes less sleep a night than A and B students. And teenagers who stayed up much later on weekends than they did during the week also tended to get lower grades than peers whose bedtimes were more consistent. In addition, students getting inadequate sleep were more sleepy, moody, and prone to behavior problems than those who got enough sleep. The average students in the study got seven hours and 20 minutes of sleep each night, nearly two hours less than their bodies needed, according to the researchers.

"Undoubtedly," they write, "adolescents require more than seven hours and 20 minutes of sleep to cope optimally with academic demands, social pressures, driving, and job responsibilities." One possible remedy, Wolfson said, is for high schools to take a hard look at their starting times and course schedules.

--David J. Hoff and Debra Viadero

Vol. 10, Issue 5, Page 17

Published in Print: February 1, 1999, as FINDINGS
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