Grilling our young

The SAT test coaching industry goes after kindergartners. Little blank slates mean great big bucks.


Jonathan Fox
November 8, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

Six years ago, Michael Hasty was just another anxious parent when he wrote a study guide to help his son pass the sixth-grade math portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). He produced the homemade guide in frustration after school officials told him there were few tools designed to help kids pass the TAAS, a battery of standardized tests that determine graduation, grade promotion and school rankings -- and set the agenda for nearly all school-reform efforts -- in test-happy Texas.

At first, Hasty didn't consider his do-it-yourself math guide more than a family tutoring aid, but when a racquetball partner offered $100 for a copy to help his son prepare for the TAAS, it didn't take him long to smell a market. Soon after, the Test Masters Company was born, and Hasty, a property tax consultant, was selling thousands of guides nationwide to worried parents, teachers and principals.

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Test Masters has since diversified to the Internet, where parents as far away as South Africa pay $25 and school districts pay $1,000 a month to access practice exams and receive instant results. About 1,000 people take exams through the site every day. Today, Hasty considers his work a public service -- albeit a profitable one. "It's designed to help children pass the standards, but it's also designed to help children learn math," he says.

But not everyone considers his line of business so benign.

The runaway success of Test Masters has fired up the mammoth SAT coaching industry, already blamed for exacerbating inequality in college admissions and feeding test score hysteria. In the coming months, Kaplan and Princeton Review, the majors of test prep, will launch Web sites and publish printed guides aimed at children as young as kindergartners. They now see the K-12 test prep market as a rich vein of ore worth mining: Kaplan, for example, has funneled $25 million into product development and marketing for its new Web site.

This big-money march on the lower grades has sparked wrath from critics who say that tests encourage schools to dumb down their curriculum to fit multiple-choice tests that don't measure real learning. They liken test-focused education to a plague of locusts that leaves in its wake nervous kids, badgered teachers and a black hole where classroom innovation once existed.

Even worse, say opponents of test prep, the products of test coaching companies are accessible mainly to wealthy parents and schools. The massive expansion of companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review will come at the expense of the poorest schools, they say, which will suffer flak from politicians and lose public support when they can't raise test scores as fast as well-heeled counterparts. SAT coaching has already deepened the divide between haves and have-nots; with test prep in early grades, critics predict the gap may intensify sooner and doom lower-income students before they even leave elementary school.

"Schools will get the educational steroid that coaching makes possible," says Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (Fairtest), "but they won't necessarily get any better, and gaps between rich and poor communities may grow."

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For now, that warning is lost in the din of voices demanding higher educational standards, which currently means a lot more tests -- and by extension, a lot more test prep. Under the Clinton administration, "high-stakes" testing has proliferated. Currently, every state except Iowa has grade-by-grade standards detailing what students must know in English, math, science and social studies. Poor scores on tests aligned to new standards increasingly result in students being retained at their grade level, sent to summer school or denied diplomas while principals are fired and teachers get poor evaluations.

Proponents have seized on Texas and North Carolina, two test-busy states that have raised state and national test scores in recent years, as evidence that standards and tests work. Yet Texas still has the fourth lowest high school completion rate, and both states, which started out low or average in national rankings to begin with, have enacted other reforms that could account for the gains, such as lowering class sizes and raising teacher salaries. Meanwhile, other test-intensive states haven't shown improvement.

The testing juggernaut, supported by campaigners George W. Bush and Al Gore, has flourished under the pretense of bipartisanship: After all, who can be against "higher standards"? Politicians prefer tests as a reform of choice since they are cheaper than, say, addressing the root causes of low achievement or increasing the capacity of low-achieving schools through investments in teacher recruitment and high-caliber instruction.

Along ideological lines, conservatives like the "back-to-basics" thrust of standards and tests, while liberals hope that setting uniform benchmarks will focus attention and resources on poor kids. It's not clear whether that is happening, but kids are definitely taking more tests. State investment in tests will grow from $165 million in 1996 to a projected $330 million in 2000, according to Achieve Inc., a partnership of CEOs and governors that leads the standards movement.

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Having been shown the money, the SAT test prep industry is moving full throttle to develop products targeting children as young as third grade. This month, Kaplan launches eSCORE.com and will publish study guides for tests in the populous states of Massachusetts, Texas, New York and Florida. Its rival, Princeton Review, this month launched Homeroom.com, which will soon become a full-service site after pilot testing is finished. And many more players will stake out ground online. "We've just seen the tip of what's going to be a huge iceberg," says Fairtest's Schaeffer.

To no one's surprise, the companies are targeting the insecurities of vulnerable parents and beleaguered educators. Homeroom.com says it can help ensure that "our children have every possible edge in achieving academic success." The Virginia-based edutest.com, which offers incentives for PTAs to sell its wares, warns on its Web site that "many state school systems are unable to meet these standards ... and risk losing accreditation."

Not surprisingly, testing foes are aghast. "These tests are squeezing the intellectual life out of schools, so it stands to reason that some vultures want to make a buck off them," says Alfie Kohn, a former teacher and author of the anti-testing tome "The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and 'Tougher Standards.'"

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Schaeffer is more pragmatic; he says the companies are simply filling a niche inadvertently created by lawmakers. Indeed, idealistic advocates of standards didn't anticipate an industry would latch onto their reforms. "I certainly didn't hear about it at the little powwows I've sat at over the years," says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a group seeking to improve education for poor children.

The lack of foresight doesn't surprise Schaeffer. "As so often happens," he says, "liberal reformers don't think about the likely consequences of their reforms nor heed the damage they have done." Many conservative backers of standards, he speculates, seek to make public schools look bad and build support for vouchers.

Kaplan and Princeton Review insist their K-12 offerings won't resemble their SAT ventures, which stress "strategic teaching" or "gaming" of tests through sleights of technique. "Why would you have a third grader try to game a test?" asks Photo Anagnostopolous, managing director of Homeroom.com. "You would really be doing a disservice to that child. And if you look at these tests, they're not like the SAT." Where the SAT features analogies and math puzzles, she explains, many K-12 tests gauge mastery of a distinct body of knowledge and skills.

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But Schaeffer deems this assurance naive. He predicts K-12 test prep will include gaming tricks such as pacing, knowing which items appear regularly, strategic guessing and formulaic essay writing. "If they don't teach it, they'll be run out of business," he says. Indeed, soon-to-be published Kaplan test prep books for the third grade TAAS and New Yorks fourth grade exam advise students on all of those "tricks."

Yet Anagnostopolous' point addresses the debate on the merits of testing, which advocates promote as a legitimate learning tool. "Good tests are worth teaching to," says Robert Schwartz, Achieve's president and a Harvard University education professor. "This means tests that require writing and thinking that can't easily be prepared for."

Bad tests, he says, "drive instruction downward toward drill and kill." To many reformers, the TAAS is the most hellish test of all. "If this were all about the TAAS, I would want to slit my throat and stick pencils in my eyes," says the Education Trust's Haycock, who nonetheless credits Texas for improving poorer schools. In fact, the tests Schwartz praises are rare, found only in a handful of states. Marylands test, for example, has students explain in writing how they solved tough math problems and performed science experiments in a group. But most other states and big cities use bubble tests that Schwartz says he disdains.

Herein lies a major rub of the standards push: The Clinton administration and groups like Achieve claim to support better-quality tests and the use of measures like grades and teacher feedback in addition to test scores when making high-stakes decisions such as grade promotion and graduation. Then they laud reform efforts in Texas and cities like Chicago, which employ shoddy tests and rely on test scores alone in making crucial decisions, a tactic even test developers deem unfair.

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Schwartz also worries that a successful test prep industry will "tilt the playing field even further." After all, how many low-income parents will have access to shiny new test prep sites on the Internet? Schwartz says he is heartened that Princeton Review, like Test Masters, will target parents and schools for Homeroom.com. "To the degree these companies try to come into the school market rather than the rich parent market, it's good," he says.

For now, the larger Kaplan is sticking to the rich parent market. It plans to draw millions of visitors to eSCORE.com next month with an extensive TV, radio and print advertising blitz.

To be sure, online test prep costs much less than tutoring at a "bricks and mortar" center, which averages $400 a course. Homeroom.com will cost schools less than $10 per student, and $30 to $60 for monthly parent subscriptions. eSCORE.com, on the other hand, will charge $75 for online counseling and $20 to $50 for test "readiness appraisals." Edutest.com gives discounts to some strapped schools and has several clients in rural Virginia, says Steve Hoy, vice president for sales and marketing.

Equity watchdogs dismiss what they see as sporadic acts of charity and say that any costs create inequities. "Even if they target schools, poor schools don't have a lot of bucks," Schaeffer says. "When you're talking about schools that don't have enough money to buy paper, $2,000 is unreal, but it's nothing to a suburban school."

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Eventually, critics say, a pervasive K-12 test prep industry may challenge the standards movement by prompting parents to question whether the tests measure things worth learning and by highlighting the snares of high-stakes testing for all children, regardless of their income level.

"You're going to have kids throwing up on test day," says Gerald Bracey, an educational consultant and Virginia's former testing director. "You're going to have more kids turned off by schooling."

The question, then, is all about timing. How long will the side effects of our latest education fad fester before we establish a system that truly fosters high standards for all?


Jonathan Fox

Jonathan Fox is an education writer in Washington.

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