WASHINGTON — For high school students, it's an academic challenge dreaded more than reading the English epic poem Beowulf: The SAT and ACT college-entrance tests.
But put away the pencils and grab a computer mouse. Test-preparation programs on the Internet and CD-ROMs that slide into home computers are flooding the market.
With colorful graphics, cartoon figures, personalized practice tests, and test-taking strategies, the computerized products - as well as commercial prep classes and private tutors - appeal to many of the more than 3 million test takers tackling the Scholastic Assessment Test and American College Testing program exam each year.
Students preparing for the tests can find free help on the World Wide Web. They can buy prep books, mostly priced between $10 and $30. There are CD-ROM disks for personal computers, selling for around $20 to $50. Coaching classes cost from $60 for a high school English teacher doing test-prep on the side to more than $500 or $600 for classes from national commercial companies. Some parents spend thousands of dollars for private sessions, including some offered at well-to-do vacation spots like Martha's Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast.
Educators caution that not all students need to invest in test-prep software or classes. They advise students to check out free materials and determine whether their preliminary college-entrance test score will be adequate to obtain admission from the college they've chosen.
To get a preview of the ACT, Paul Silva, a senior at Ponderosa High School in Parker, Colo., loads a CD-ROM, sold by Kaplan Educational Centers, into his computer. "You put in the CD. It's like you're driving a car and you have a road map to the ACT. After you take the pretest, it tells you what areas you need to work on," he says.
Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Cambridge, Mass., advises students who prepare on their computers to sharpen a No. 2 pencil, sit down at a desk, and take a practice exam, methodically coloring in the tiny ovals, or bubbles, on the answer sheet. "A very common mistake is mis-bubbling - skipping a question, but not skipping a line on the answer sheet," Schaeffer says."You can't get that practice with a mouse."