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

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.

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.

Since creating its grade-school division three years ago, for example, The Princeton Review has signed contracts with schools in 25 states ranging from about $1,000 to $25,000.

The firm's latest offerings are two $2,000 workshops: one to help teachers prepare students for state exams, the other a crash course for parents on test-taking skills. Last year, meanwhile, Sylvan Learning Centers added a $900 test-prep course for students as young as third grade.

But in an era of tight budgets, a school might have to forgo an extracurricular activity or new equipment to pay for test preparation. Alouf also questions why schools aren't able to teach the content for each test as well as the basics of test-taking. "Will [our] education system become increasingly privatized, with schools facing a growing reliance on these companies to help educate their children?" he asks.

Then there's the concern that so much focus on test-taking techniques will undermine actual learning of the content. Kaplan's "Ultimate FCAT: Expert Tips to Help Boost your Grade 10 FCAT Score," for instance, offers this advice for the essay portion of the Florida test: "... if you write a deeply moving, well-developed essay with atrocious grammar, you might still get a ... minimum passing score."

The companies maintain that many of their testing products do focus on content. And besides, if high-stakes testing is here to stay, schools might as well avail themselves of as many resources as possible.

A statewide approach

That's the approach Massachusetts recently took when the Department of Education (DOE) sealed a half-million-dollar contract with The Princeton Review.

Students who didn't pass their first attempt at the state test last year as sophomores are the first group who, under a new state law, must retake the test until they pass – or else fail to graduate.

The company has a deal with about two dozen high schools to provide extra training for this year's juniors who didn't pass. The students are taken out of their regular classes for about three hours a week to focus on math and English basics with The Princeton Review staff.

Other high schools in the state have similar deals with different companies.

But all the juniors in the state who failed the test, along with all sophomores who will take the test for the first time this May, also have access to The Princeton Review's online tutoring program.

"The website allows students to use technology ... which is a more hands-on approach to learning that lets students be the drivers," says The Princeton Review's Stephen Kutno, vice president of the K-12 division.

The DOE reportedly was surprised by the popularity of the online tutorial. Just two months after its launch in October, with scant publicity, more than 5,141 students used the site at least once.

However, The Princeton Review says its products and services are too new for any outside performance review.

Still, says Richard Shavelson, professor of education at Stanford University in California, "It's like Pascal's great wager.... Any parent or teacher would rather assume the test preparation works and go ahead with it in full force, than to have doubts and later stand corrected."

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