Schools turn to web to prepare students for high-stakes testing

By Elizabeth B. Guerard, Associate Editor, eSchool News

With the increased emphasis on standardized testing and accountability in public education, many companies and school districts are turning to the web to find innovative ways to help students, teachers, and parents prepare for and understand state achievement tests.

"Itís a real explosion. Firms who have previously done other kinds of media are now aggressively marketing online products," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

According to the Center for Fair and Open Testing, "Americaís public schools administer more than 100 million standardized exams each year, including IQ, achievement, screening, and readiness tests."

Sharon Miller, general manager of Kaptest.com, Kaplanís online offering, believes the industry has answered a call from consumers for online coaching. "The online test prep industry is booming because of increased internet access and ... time issues. Studentsí lives have changed so dramatically, and they just donít have enough time in the day to prepare for entrance exams. This way, they have 24-7 access to test prep," she said.

"The tests are a reality and also part of our economy now," said Edmundo Gonzalez, director of marketing at TestU, an online coaching firm that launched August 1. "The need to certify knowledge is becoming more prevalent."

Schaeffer has other ideas about why online test prep sites are popping up all over. "Often, people doing the web coaching are entrepreneurs. The low barrier for entry cost on the web allows new players to enter the market as fast as states can come up with new tests," he asserted.

Schaeffer has seen both vertical and horizontal entry into the online coaching market, with big test preparation companies such as the Princeton Review and Kaplan announcing online components and brand-new, web-only start-ups like TestU vying for a piece of the market share as well.

"The theme is synergism. The big boys want products in every modality," he said. "For example, the Princeton Review hasóin addition to their centersóbooks, the web, and CD-ROMs. The theory seems to be that once someone enters your business through a low-cost means like the web, the company can then walk them up to more expensive programs."

According to Bill Zuberbuhler, chief executive officer of Scholastic Testing Systems, "Scholastic believes in hands-on, classroom-based test prep, but also advocates the use of the internet as a means of support for traditional test coaching. We advocate the Ďclicks and mortarí system.

"The internet just makes test prep easier," he said. For instance, "in a district with a wide area network connecting five high schools, the assistant superintendent can go online and look at all five schools individually, and then again as a district."

Ethicality a question mark

But with the boom in online test prep sites come ethical questions about test coaching as an industry, some would argue.

"In the last six years, thereís been a heightening of accountability. States are using tests to determine if a student is promoted or detained. And, often, a school is determined successful if its teachers receive recognition for high test scores," said Steve Kutno, vice president of education policy and strategy at the Princeton Reviewís online offering, Homeroom.com.

Itís factors like these that make test-prep sites a legitimate market, he said.

But some education officials worry that increased emphasis on testing may create an environment ripe for cheating and unethical behavior.

"There has been an explosion of questionable ethical behavior surrounding standardized testing recently. The education profession, like any other profession, has people of all kinds of ethical standards," Schaeffer said.

Besides the threat of out-and-out cheating by teachers and students, Schaeffer fears the so-called "gray area" that remains undefined in testing ethics. One such issue is known as "parallel-form preparation." This is where students go over old tests and are tipped off to both form and content through such preparation. In California, for instance, one yearís test was 80 percent the same as the year before. Politicians often argue for this as a cost-savings measure, Schaeffer said.

"When faced with this type of situation, even totally ethical teachers notice what is on these tests and can subconsciously gear their teaching toward that test. It is not ethical or unethical. It just is," he said.

Many educators fear that "teaching to the test"óthe practice of gearing instruction specifically to the questions that appear in a state examódilutes the curriculum and undermines the quality of education.

Kutno believes online test preparation helps to alleviate teaching to the test by offering students a way to prepare for the all-important state tests in a way that is separate from the regular curriculum. "We hope that by providing online development for testing, it will leave teachers with the time to focus on broader topics," he said.

But does online coaching merely present students with a different set of biases to overcome? What about students who donít have access to computers and the internet?

"Certainly, coaching brings up digital divide issues. It reinforces the pre-existing biases for students who can afford coaching with access issues. It does not level the playing field by any means," said Schaeffer.

Not so, proponents of test prep sites argue. Most companies offering online test preparation believe the internet has the power to help more students, not fewer, receive the test coaching they need to be competitive.

"Democratization of education is key," said TestUís Gonzalez. "Before this, test prep was reserved for the Ďhaves.í This way, we can bring test prep to everyone with access to a computer." Most students now have access to a computer either through school or through a community-based technology center, he said.

"We think of the internet as a great equalizer," agreed Kaptestís Miller. "For instance, we donít have centers in Alaska, but those students can now enroll online. Weíre now reaching students we could not reach before."

And then thereís the issue of whether standardized testing is a good measure of academic performance at all.

"Basically, you are rewarding people for good coaching," said Schaeffer. "It has been proven that there is no correlation between SAT scores and life performance. The SAT has even been proven gender-biased in several legal battles.

"With the SAT, a verbal score is given on a test in which you do not write or speak a single word, and a lot of K-12 tests are no better. Thatís why they are so susceptible to coaching," he said.

Oddly, even the College Board, the producer of the national SAT exam, has developed a web-based tutorial for the essay question portion of the exam. The EssayPrep online offering was announced despite years of assurance that test prep for the SAT was a waste of time and money.

Does it even work?

Whether they consider standardized testing to be an adequate or appropriate way to measure students achievement, most people would agree there is a significant call for test preparation from educators and parents who want to give students a leg up on increasingly important state and national exams. But the question remains: Do test prep courses really work?

They probably do, at least to an extent, said Schaeffer.

"If coaching does not work, it would be the only human endeavor in which skill does not increase with practice. The familiarization with the tests themselves helps by teaching students about content, format, and pace," he said.

For example, Schaeffer says students should never read the instructions when taking a timed test. After all, the directions on the SAT have not changed for 20 years, and students donít get points for reading instructions; they get points for right answers. "Coaching increases familiarity, so students donít have to take time figuring out what the test is asking them to do," he said.

Format is also key. For instance, Schaeffer said, scores in Virginia went down when the state changed the format of math problems on its state exams from vertical to horizontal. This shows that familiarity of format is a key factor in test performance.

"Kids tend to fixate on one problem and waste time, so pace is also importantóand with practice, a student can get an idea for how fast they have to work," he said.

Though no exact figures exist for the degree to which students can improve their scores through online coaching, Kaptestís Miller says her company offers a satisfaction-guaranteed policy to all its online users. If a student does not believe the coaching helped, he or she can take the course over again, minus a small administrative fee, she said.

"But we have not had anyone ask to do that yet," she added.

In fact, Schaeffer says there have been no scientific studies of students who have taken web-based test prep courses to determine whether the courses actually help raise scores or not. "The only academic studies have been done in the SAT arena," he said. "Years ago, the studies concluded that good courses can raise SAT scores by 100 points. We have no idea about the rest of it."

Despite offering its EssayPrep product to help students prepare for the SAT II portion of the national exam, the College Board insists that the benefits of SAT coaching are inconclusive, but the group "strongly recommend[s] that students take challenging academic courses and work hard in them."

All this adds up to bad news for those who see testing as a way to create a more level playing field for students, at least according to the Center for Fair and Open Testing.

"The explosion of coaching has further undermined the legitimacy of the test-based meritocracy. How can a college admission officer know whether the 1300 on the SAT is from a kid walking in and talking the test cold, or whether they spent $900 on a course?" Schaeffer said.

Lee Betton, manager of the Computer Clubhouse at the Gum Springs Community Center in Alexandria, Va., said the Northern Viriginia Technology Council paid for 13 kids to take Kaplanís online SAT prep course at the center for $35 each.

"We had 11 who actively participated through the whole process," Betton said. "Of those, we had four who took the SAT." The result? "Itís on the low side of successful," Betton said. "Two kids had clear improvements.

"I think itís a good idea, and I had a chance to look over the materials and they are excellent, but you have to have motivated kids to do it," he added. "Maybe it requires a motivational speech at the beginning of each session."

He also said the quality of the streaming video "is not that good" and that the set-up is a little cumbersome.

Most observers expect to see the online test prep trend continue to grow, at least for a while. "I think we will continue to see expansion, then consolidation, and eventually shakeout," Schaeffer said.

"We will see lots of gimmicks and very heavy promotion. TestU took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, for example. They are using the eBusiness model, in that they spend money to establish a consumer base and hope they will eventually make money."

But Kaptestís Miller does not believe online coaching will replace traditional coaching. "We see traditional test prep and online test prep as two distinct markets. An online student tends to be more self-motivated and aggressive, whereas some students really need classroom motivation and someone there to pat them on the back," she said.

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