SAT prep sites get mixed grades

Consumer Reports WebWatch, a reporting service from the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports that investigates the credibility of online services, has reviewed 10 web sites that purport to help students prepare for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a key qualifier for admission to top colleges. The group’s evaluation suggests that a free site’s services are as effective as others costing upwards of $400–and testers also found the offerings of many major brands marred by grammatical errors, technical glitches, and aggressive advertising tactics.

WebWatch and the Mediatech Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Flemington, N.J., tested 10 online SAT prep services last summer. The tests reportedly cost Webwatch $33,000 to conduct.

The Mediatech Foundation recruited 20 high school juniors to evaluate 10 sites online: Barron’s Test Prep, Boston Test Prep, Kaplan’s SAT Online Prep, Number2.com, Peterson’s SAT Online Course, PrepMe, SAT Secrets, Test Preparation Program, The Official SAT Online Course, and The Princeton Review. WebWatch noted that the data collected from the study were not statistically significant, because only 20 students took the online test-prep courses.

Taking the SAT has become a rite of passage for more than 1 million college-bound high-school students in the United States each year. In tandem, demand for SAT test preparation services has grown, driven by the competitive nature of college admissions and the ability to take the SAT repeatedly to attain a better score. The size of the online market for test-prep services is hard to define, but it has been estimated at $50 million by Eduventures Inc., a Boston-based research firm.

Because of the increasing role of the internet in delivering SAT test-prep services to students and families, WebWatch and Mediatech selected 10 such online services to review. Each of the 10 sites was reviewed by two students during a minimum of five, four-hour sessions.

The sites were chosen to represent a range of costs–from free of charge to $500. Student testers deemed seven of the 10 sites generally effective in what they promised to deliver. In most cases, testers were pleased with their experience, and would recommend this method of study to others. Of the three that received poor reviews–SAT Secrets, Test Preparation Program’s Online Test Prep, and PrepMe–only PrepMe returned calls from an eSchool News reporter.

WebWatch said it observed what it called some “troubling trends,” particularly regarding the blending of advertising and educational content, aggressive marketing, and privacy practices. In one case, according to the report, The Princeton Review reportedly sent an eMail message that included a link to a United States Air Force recruiting form to a tester who expressed interest in college scholarship information. Students using the test-prep services from the College Board, the SAT’s creator, also reported receiving eMails from banks, military recruiters, or offers of financial aid or study aid. The College Board also reportedly marketed its web-based online test-prep service in advertising space not clearly distinguished from free test resources.

Testers found the online service created by The College Board had technical glitches and lacked interactive features common on other sites. Mistakes in online sample tests–including grammatical problems, questions with no answers, missing sections of text, font problems, or poorly constructed questions–were consistently present in six of the 10 services evaluated: Boston Test Prep, Kaplan, PrepMe, SAT Secrets, Test Preparation Program, and The Princeton Review.

Caren Scoropanos, a spokeswoman for The College Board, said her organization had no knowledge of the report and declined to comment before reading it.

The report found the only free-of-charge service tested, Number2.com, a test-prep service from the college admissions software and services firm Xap Corp., performed exceptionally well against expensive, better-known services such as The Princeton Review and Kaplan’s, neither of which had returned telephone calls seeking comment as of press time. Number2.com was found to combine depth of content, record keeping, and individualized features with SAT test practice. Users reported that using the service was straightforward, with tips, quizzes, and useful hints.

A program from PrepMe, a Chicago-based SAT prep organization, was reported to have “significant design problems,” including a frustrating sign-in process, lack of interoperability, and poorly designed user interface that included no clear practice portion to go along with information offered in slide presentations. Students also reported being uncomfortable sharing correspondence with their online tutors assigned as a part of the $499.99 price tag. Both of the students assigned to PrepMe eventually asked to be placed in other online preparatory programs–one within four hours of having started.

“In general, our feeling is that the review that was carried out in July 2005 was rather outdated [by the time the report was issued],” said Karan Goel, the company’s CEO.

“When the review was done, we weren’t close to where we are now,” Goel added. “We were using a [third-party web] technology at that time, and we have since built our own proprietary [interface], which basically answers all the [technical] concerns raised in the report. We have completely revamped the look and feel of the course: We’ve been working our rear ends off to make sure our students have a great experience with the service.”

Still, Goel said he was surprised that the students who used the PrepMe course would have been so put off by exchanging correspondence with the online tutor.

“I don’t think [the testers’ experience] was typical–even at the time the test was conducted. Our tutors contact the students within 24 hours of their having signed up for the course,” Goel said. “To be completely honest, I’m a little surprised the students were uncomfortable with the online tutor.”

Bearing perhaps the worst response from students taking the courses, Test Preparation Program’s Online Test Prep–which charges $29.95 for three months of service–contained frequent spelling errors, including words like “whore” instead of “where.” The home page reportedly contained 20 non-functional links and no information about the publisher. The site’s internet service provider was traced to Bangkok, Thailand, and eMail requests made by WebWatch for refunds and technical support reportedly went unanswered.

“Online SAT test-prep services are clearly still evolving,” said Warren Buckleitner, the report’s author, a consultant to Consumer Reports WebWatch and founder and interim director of Mediatech. “On one hand, students rated many of the valid sites superior to traditional books or non-individualized SAT classes. On the other hand, there was a wide variation in costs involved, and it was far too easy to find sloppy editorial content, buggy programming, and marketing practices that are, at best, questionable.”

Links:

Consumer Reports Webwatch
http://www.consumerwebwatch.org

Mediatech Foundation
http://www.mediatech.org

“College Test Prep Takes a Test: A Review of Ten Online SAT Test Preparation Services”
http://blog.consumerwebwatch.org/theunsponsoredlink

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Report: NCLB has led to gains in achievement–but a narrower curricular focus

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The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is having a significant impact on the day-to-day activities of school systems, prompting districts to align instruction with state standards and use test data to adjust teaching, according to a new report from the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy (CEP), which tracks implementation of the law. However, 71 percent of districts surveyed reported having reduced instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and mathematics, the topics tested for NCLB purposes. Though the vast majority of state and district officials surveyed say the law’s focus on the academic performance of student subgroups is having a positive effect, the report also notes that many officials believe the law has escalated pressure on teachers to a stressful level and is negatively affecting staff morale in some schools. “The effects of NCLB are complex, and this policy has both strengths and weaknesses,” said Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the independent, nonpartisan CEP. “If anyone is looking for a simple judgment on NCLB, such as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ they will not find it in this report.” The report, “From the Capital to the Classroom: Year 4 of the No Child Left Behind Act,” is the fourth in a series of annual reports to be issued through 2008 by CEP, offering a long-term look at how the law’s implementation is affecting states and school districts. The report also looks at case-study districts from all 50 states.

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Are spelling bees outdated in ‘spell-check’ era?

A New York Times editorial questions whether the spelling bee is an outdated exercise in the face of modern spell-check software. Traditionally, the bee has been a useful tool in grade school education, but more and more, complex linguistic skills are taking precedence. If people are really interested in education, wouldn’t a “definition bee” be more practical in this day and age? The piece argues that memorization of “5 dollar words” might not be the most useful real-world skill for these types of driven kids to learn and master… (Note: This site requires free registration.)

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Symantec fixes flaw in antivirus software

The Associated Press reports that Symantec Corp. has fixed a major problem with its leading antivirus software that would let hackers, steal, alter data, or implant malicious programs. The antivirus software protects some of the world’s largest corporations and government agencies. Symantec began working on the patch over the Memorial Day holiday, after the problem was discovered. While there have not been detected instances of hackers exploiting the flaw, the quick turnaround from discovery to patch is indicative of the seriousness of the threat. The patch is available using the company’s “LiveUpdate” technology…

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Schools use tech to keep out sex offenders

The Chicago Tribune reports that officials in almost four dozen Illinois schools can now use a computerized system to check whether school visitors are registered sex offenders. With a swipe of a driver’s license, the system can tap into a database of registered offenders in 47 states–or check for individuals with restraining orders filed against them. If the person is approved for entry, they receive a pass with an ID picture. If they are not, the police and school officials are then automatically notified. At the moment, 45 schools have signed up for the V-soft system, named for “Visitor, Student or Faculty Tracking”…

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Robots stand in for bedridden students

Lying in his hospital room, on a mattress designed to protect his fragile skin, 13-year-old Achim Nurse poked his bandaged fingers at an orange button on what looked like a souped-up video game console.

Half a second later, in a social studies class discussing the Erie Canal, a 5-foot-tall steel-blue robot raised its hand.

“You have a question, Achim?” asked the teacher.

Achim is using a pair of robots–one, called “Mr. Spike,” at his bedside, and its mate, “Mrs. Candy,” in the classroom–to keep up with his schoolwork and his friends for the months he will be bedridden at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, N.Y., just north of New York City.

The robot in the classroom, which displays a live picture of Achim, provides what its inventors call “telepresence”: It gives the boy an actual presence in the classroom, recognized by teachers and classmates. It can move from class to class on its four-wheeled base, and it could even stop at the lockers for a between-periods chat.

“The robot literally is embraced by students in the classroom as though [it] is the medically fragile student,” said Andrew Summa, national director of the robot project, which is in use at six other hospitals around the country. Achim’s teacher, Bob Langerfield, said his other students have become used to the robot and were treating it as if it were Achim after just a few days.

The program has great potential for expansion, its supporters say. It could keep suspended students connected to their classrooms, for example, or even help young prisoners. Summa says it also has promise as a tool in treating autism, because it gives the patient control of the social environment.

“I don’t know where it’s going to go next, but it does have considerable potential,” Summa said.

The robots work in pairs. The one at Achim’s bedside displayed a live picture of the social studies classroom. Achim could see Langerfield, his desk, the board, a map of the United States, and the clock. He could hear Langerfield saying, “From 1830 to 1860 New York City grew at an astounding rate.”

The second robot was in the back of the classroom, its “face” (and autofocus camera) aimed at the teacher. Its display showed Achim in his bed.

“If he’s looking out the window, the teacher will know it,” said Jim DeSimone, who is the traumatic brain injury coordinator at Blythedale and the school’s “robot guy.”

Using the buttons and a joystick on the control box, Achim could zoom in to read what was on the board; swivel the robot’s head to see and talk to a classmate; raise the robot’s hand; adjust the volume; or log out, if a nurse came to take him away for tests or physical therapy.

At one point, when the teacher wanted Achim to see something printed on a piece of paper, he held it up to the classroom robot’s “face.”

The robots also have scanners and printers, so the patient can receive whatever the teacher is handing out in class–a fact sheet, a homework assignment, a test. They can be wired or wireless.

Achim, whose severe rash arose from a case of bacterial meningitis, said that when he was offered the use of Mr. Spike, “I was out of my mind, saying, A robot?’ When I first saw it, it looked difficult.”

But he picked up all the moves in 30 minutes, he said, and now finds it “cool” rather than strange.

“It’s like a video game, but the only thing is you have to go to school,” he said.

“When you’re in the hospital you’re isolated, you’re stuck here,” said DeSimone. “You don’t have friends, you don’t have anything except maybe a phone call from home. You fall behind at school. With this you have social interaction, which is a part of school. Yeah, we could have a teacher come in to his hospital room and teach him, but that’s not the same.”

Each of the robots has a disk-shaped head, with a large screen showing the remote feed and a small one showing what the other robot is displaying. The rod connecting the head to the trunk looks enough like a neck that the one in the Blythedale classroom had an ID card looped around it. The “shoulders” can hold up a T-shirt. The trunk slopes outward toward the 3-foot-by-3-foot wheelbase so the robot can fit under tables and desks. The bright orange plastic hand emerges from the trunk with a low whirr.

Blythedale has its own school, but that’s rare and irrelevant to the use of the robots, which use internet connections.

“You can have a child hospitalized in New York City, and his classroom can be in New Zealand,” Summa said. “We can connect any two points around the world.”

The robot system was developed in Toronto by Telbotics Inc. along with Ryerson University and the University of Toronto. It is managed in the United States by The Learning Collaborative Inc., under a federal grant. The 40 robots now in use are on loan to the hospitals, although Summa said they are available for sale at about $70,000 a pair.

Summa said one student used a robot so fully that the robot joined the boy’s classmates to sing a song at a school show. He said a child in the audience asked, “What’s that thing up on stage?” to which a friend of the student replied, “That’s no thing. That’s Jimmy.”

Links:

The PEBBLES Project
http://www.pebblesproject.org

Blythedale Children’s Hospital
http://www.blythedale.org

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Opinion: Stop chasing high-tech cheaters

An Opinion piece in InsideHigherEd.com argues in response to an article in The New York Times on high-tech cheating. While not defending the practice, the author argues that there is a cost to pursuing catching cheaters as well as a tendency of instructors to miss where the real problem can be found. In some sense, the author argues, we must welcome these new technologies and methods of cheating, because they will force a change in the way various subjects are taught. Currently, there is too much “regurgitation” of facts, as opposed to critical thinking. The author raises a question initially asked in the Times: “In today’s information age, where a body of information in all but the narrowest of fields is beyond anyone’s ability to master, why aren’t colleges teaching students how to research, organize and evaluate the information that is out there?” He goes on to argue that a “dirty secret” of academia is that both bad instructors and bas assignments lead to cheating. If all the instructors want to test for is facts, spelling, memorization, etc., then students will be both willing and able to do so. Ultimately, what must be gained from education is the processing of available information…

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Electronic gradebook earns A+ reviews

The Pioneer Press reports that the technology staff of District 211 in suburban Chicago created an electronic gradebook to help meet district needs. Using the gradebook, parents and students can get real-time updates on classroom progress. As a teacher marks a grade, that grade is then automatically updated on the web. Assistant superintendent of curriculum Jeff Butzen said: “This is absolutely unique; there is nothing like this on the market.” Two years ago, staff met with the technology department to pick out a commercial program. However, during discussions, the technology department determined they could make a custom program, integrating the districts wants and needs. School officials say that commercial programs that have all of the features that their custom program possesses cost around $200,000, and that they are moving in the direction of making this program proprietary, as two other school districts seem to be interested as well…

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Home broadband use spikes as prices fall

The Associated Press reports that as a price war shakes out among phone companies, middle-and working-class families adopted broadband internet service in record numbers over the past year. From March 2005 to March 2006, broadband numbers increased 59 percent in United States households earning between $30,000 and $50,000 according to a study to be released by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. In addition, broadband increased 40 percent in households making less than $30,000, and among blacks, 121 percent…

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PowerSchool just latest Pearson buy

Pearson School Systems’ purchase of Apple’s PowerSchool is just the latest in a long list of deals for its parent company, British media giant Pearson PLC. Over the last eight years, Pearson PLC–which owns the Financial Times and Penguin Books, among many other businesses–has steadily acquired a number of U.S. education companies and ed-tech firms. Here are some highlights of Pearson’s aggressive growth:

1998: Pearson Education is created from the merger of Addison-Wesley Longman and the educational businesses of Simon & Schuster. In acquiring the educational holdings of Simon & Schuster for $4.6 billion, Pearson also assumed control of Computer Curriculum Corp. (publisher of the SuccessMaker software), which had been owned by that firm.

2000: Pearson acquires Minnesota-based National Computer Systems (NCS), the largest educational testing and data management company in the U.S., for $2.4 billion. Brought into Pearson Education as NCS Pearson, the company becomes the focal point for Pearson’s professed efforts to integrate the home and school, personalize courses, and link curriculum, assessment, and testing.

2002: Pearson Education acquires DDC Publishing, a provider of software training titles to the high school and post-secondary markets. “This purchase helps meet a growing need in the secondary market for [high-] quality technology textbooks, multimedia CD-ROMs, and lessons designed for students and teachers in grades K-12,” said the company’s Marty Smith at the time of the announcement. The addition of DDC Publishing accelerates Pearson imprint Prentice Hall School’s entry into the software training market and nearly doubles the number of products it has to offer.

2003: Pearson Education acquires LessonLab, a pioneer in education research and state-of-the-art technologies for teaching and professional development.

2003: Pearson Education acquires Scholar Inc., which provides comprehensive data management tools and solutions designed for the U.S. K-12 education market. The company’s Scholar Suite web-based data management system allows school, district, and state administrators to work with student performance results from more than 140 different tests, in compliance with federal mandates established by the No Child Left Behind Act.

2004: Pearson School Systems acquires altonaEd, creator of the School Information & Performance System (SiPs). The acquisition supports Pearson Education’s strategy to enable educators to use student information to assess students, diagnose achievement gaps, and prescribe instructional strategies to close those gaps at the district, school, classroom, and student levels, the company said.

2005: Pearson acquires AGS Publishing from WRC Media for $270 million. The deal enables Pearson to strengthen its position in testing and publishing for students with special educational needs.

2006: Pearson acquires Promissor, a professional testing business, from Houghton Mifflin for $42 million in cash. Promissor provides licensing examinations for state and federal regulatory bodies in the U.S.

2006 Pearson acquires Effective Educational Technologies, a privately held company based in Cambridge, Mass., that developed the next-generation online assessment and tutorial programs MasteringPhysics, MasteringGeneralChemistry, and MasteringAstronomy.

2006: Pearson acquires National Evaluation Systems Inc. (NES), a leading provider of customized state assessments for teacher certification in the U.S. It works under contract with state education agencies, developing and administering licensure tests for prospective teachers who want to enter the profession, teach a new subject, or work in a new state.

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