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Third grade? It's time for a test-prep class

By Sara SteindorfStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2002

Last week, David Bradford's eighth-graders spent three days scribbling out essays and filling in bubbles on the Florida high-stakes exam. Each year, the exercise is a grueling experience, fraught with tensions over how the school will fare.

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But this year, Mr. Bradford is optimistic. He won't know results until May, but he has a hunch the Edgewood Middle School on Merritt Island might rise above last year's "dismal" B status.

The reason: The English teacher and military veteran found a new plan of attack. He bought Kaplan's test-prep books, which help teachers tailor their daily lessons to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

"They read like a military op ... with a long-range mission and detailed steps on how to get there," he says.

Bradford is so convinced the materials work that he persuaded his entire school to use the books. Students who don't perform well on Kaplan's practice FCATs are whisked out of class for several hours each month for "extra grilling on Kaplan's test strategies."

Bradford's enthusiasm is being echoed in schools around the United States. In just the past three years, the market for K-12 test-preparation supplies for state exams has exploded from a negligible sum to some $50 million. The field is populated with familiar companies like Kaplan, The Princeton Review, and Sylvan Learning Centers, but dozens of new, smaller firms have sprung up to help satiate the growing demand.

That demand may be boosted further by the education law President Bush signed in January requiring annual testing in reading and math by 2005 for Grades 3 through 8. The law also promises to provide up to $1,000 per child in continuously low-scoring schools for tutoring and test training.

The services, to some, are simply another tool to help students, particularly those who initially fail the tests. But critics argue they could give an advantage to those who can pay for the programs. Beyond that, the materials are unproven, and may encourage students to focus on learning test tricks rather than mastering basic subject matter.

"None of their services has been validly tested for its effectiveness ... and yet schools and parents are feeling obliged to pour in money," says James Alouf, an education professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

Companies like Kaplan assert that test-taking skills, just like reading and writing skills, are something that all children must develop.

"Students may do well in a certain subject area, but if they haven't learned the subject in a way they will be tested on,... or they haven't learned how to take a bubble test, they might not do well," says Mark Bernstein, president of Kaplan's K-12 division.

Pressure to succeed

State exams have become the norm for American public schools. And there's good reason they are known as "high stakes" tests: The results determine whether a student will graduate or a teacher will receive a raise, and in the case of Florida, whether a teacher or a school will be placed on probation.

The tests, in theory, ensure that all children have a crack at a good education by holding schools to a certain standard. But the pressure to produce good scores is prompting educators to try even untested approaches.

Schools, in fact, haven't needed much persuasion to sign on for test-prep materials.