It's hard to imagine the nation's students profiting from the latest fad in education policy, the new mania for high-stakes testing; but commercial businesses already are.
Consider what's happening in Massachusetts. In 1993 the state enacted a sweeping education reform plan whose centerpiece is the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), a series of grueling exams for students in the fourth, eighth, and tenth grades. Starting with this year's sophomores, no Massachusetts public school student will be able to graduate from high school without passing the exam, and decisions on promotion at lower grade levels will often depend on MCAS results. The attendant anxiety has created a ready market for Kaplan, the company best known for helping high schoolers prepare for the SAT. So far, it has published two guides to the MCAS for elementary and middle-school students and their families, and more are to come. These guides include tips on everything from pacing yourself and choosing answers by a process of elimination to writing a well-structured essay and doing basic math. The Princeton Review, Kaplan's biggest competitor in the SAT test-prep business, plans to have its own MCAS guide out by next March.
"I'm a working mother," says Peggy Wiesenberg, a parent from Boston. "I don't want to spend my free time working on test prep--my kids should be enjoying their childhood instead." But such sentiments are being crushed in the stampede to test. Twenty-seven states have now established mandatory testing programs, many with stakes as high as in Massachusetts. "The pressure that we're putting on young kids is phenomenal," says Robert Schaeffer, the public education director at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). "Kids believe, to a certain extent correctly, that their education and career opportunities will be determined by how they fill in the bubbles and write those three-paragraph essays." And test-prep companies and educational publishers know an opportunity when they see it. "They're like circling vultures," says Alfie Kohn, the author of The Schools Our Children Deserve. "They find a place where there's a new test, and then they offer their services."
Many educators decry the new testing craze, arguing that it distracts schools from real learning. The tests count for so much that teachers often "teach to the test" and center their lesson plans around test-taking skills or, in extreme cases, cancel field trips so they'll have more time to get ready or quit teaching whole subjects if they won't appear on the exam. Student anxiety levels are soaring, the critics say, while the tests measure only a single dimension of real accomplishment--and even that without great reliability. Moreover, as Susan Mayer and Christopher Jencks recently pointed out in The New York Times, the severe penalties for low scores seem to be driving students to drop out--and lose out on the benefits that schooling demonstrably offers even those with low test scores. In all these ways, high-stakes testing is unfair to the students it is supposed to serve.
Teachers and administrators, meanwhile, often feel that the success of their careers and the fate of their schools depend on test scores. In some states, the pressure on educators is explicit. In Florida, for instance, schools are assigned a grade of A to F based on their students' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), with state funding on the line.
The response to these pressures can be unhealthy for everyone involved. Some schools try to classify potential low scorers as special-needs students so they won't be counted in the school's average test scores; others, critics charge, ignore the neediest students in favor of those on the line between passing and failing. There also seems to be outright cheating. Last year the entire Austin Independent School District was indicted for tampering with Texas test booklets; this was the first time in Texas history that criminal charges were filed against a school district. In March two teachers in Pinellas County, Florida, were accused of helping their students cheat on the FCAT.
"When tests become the primary or sole factor on which important educational decisions are based, schools and kids will get the scores they need by hook or by crook," says Schaeffer.
Guidebooks and Dot-coms
So it's no surprise that the market for coaching materials is booming. From Florida to California, local companies are emerging to help students and teachers prep for high-stakes exams: Chains like Sylvan Learning Centers and Kaplan's SCORE! learning centers provide hands-on tutoring. Web sites like eSCORE!.com (another subsidiary of Kaplan) offer students the chance to brush up on basic skills online (and to learn that a for-profit learning center would give them yet more practice). Kaplan has released a series of "parent's guides" and "no-stress guides" to exams not just in Massachusetts, but also in New York, Florida, and Texas, for students in the third, fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. Princeton Review has published competing guides to the Texas and New York tests as well as materials for teachers to use in class, and will soon come out with guides for Virginia and Massachusetts.
It's an industry still evolving, but already the top test-prep producers know enough to claim that their products will not only raise scores; they will also alleviate some of the big problems associated with high-stakes testing. Test prep, they say, will decrease test anxiety. "The idea is to give your children confidence enough so that they'll never look at a question and panic," says Maureen McMahon, the publisher of Kaplan. And more efficient exam preparation can give teachers more time for real classroom instruction, says the Princeton Review's Reed Talada. "In a world without some sort of focused research to let teachers and students understand the test and what's there, the danger is that teachers will spend three or four months preparing for the test when they only need to spend a few weeks," he says.
Both companies recognize that elementary-school test prep is controversial, and they go out of their way to emphasize the differences between their guides to the high-stakes tests and their SAT-prep materials. McMahon, for instance, notes that Kaplan's SAT guide is 600 pages long and includes five sample tests. "I don't think an eight-year-old wants to take five practice exams, and I don't think that's appropriate," she says. "But I think there are skills you can introduce to children that will help them on the exam."
Talada suggests that the SAT is very different from the various state-mandated exams. Most state exams, he points out, "are much more focused on looking at the mastery of a basic set of skills." You won't find analogies or logic puzzles on high-stakes exams, so there's less need to think strategically or to try to "beat the test."
Or so they claim. But what are these materials actually like? So far, most of the advice is standard, commonsense fare. "Read to understand, not to memorize," Kaplan advises Massachusetts fourth-graders. "Show your work, and give every question your best shot," it tells students concerned about math.
The Kaplan books have a chatty style. The company's Parent's Guide to the MCAS for Grade 4 suggests games that can help children prepare for the test, while its No-Stress Guide to the 8th Grade MCAS takes the form of a dialogue between schoolchildren transcribed by an alien space traveler named X!Frumious. In contrast, Princeton Review's state test guides look and feel more like the company's SAT materials. Cracking the NY State 8th Grade Math Test, for instance, begins with a quick review of the exam's content, followed by two sample tests and an explanation of the answers.
But both companies stick closely to the score-raising task at hand. Both emphasize familiarity with an exam's structure and the way it's scored; both explain a few basic test-taking strategies. And as the competition between the two companies heats up, we're likely to see more of the cynical "beat the test" advice that critics lament in traditional SAT prep. Kaplan's MCAS guide already suggests that fourth-graders working on multiple-choice reading comprehension questions look for the "positive, character-building answer that former educators writing the test would want children to learn."
The End-of-Sentence Game
Indeed, a flourishing test-prep industry--contrary to the companies' rhetoric--is less likely to solve the problems of high-stakes testing than to exacerbate them.
It seems unlikely, for instance, that the companies will be able to promote test-prep materials for the mass market without fueling the fears of students, parents, and teachers. It's uncertain whether they can even produce materials that are both test-centered and stress-reducing. Kaplan suggests several games that parents can play with their children to help them prepare for the MCAS. In the "end-of-sentence game," for example, players review the test's structure by "sneak[ing] in simple questions at the end of ordinary sentences." At the dinner table, the book suggests, a player could say, "Please pass the potatoes if you know how many multiple-choice questions there are in the Math exam." Some parents may find this a low-pressure way to help their children get ready for the test, but others could drive their kids crazy.
What's more, the growth of private test prep is almost certain to compound the unfairness of high-stakes testing. Socio-economic status has always been one of the best predictors of scores on these kinds of exams; a successful test-prep industry would reinforce the gap between those with the time, money, and educational savvy needed to find and buy these test-prep materials--and those without. Even when the buyers are teachers or school systems, they will more likely come from the richer school districts, gaining them a further test-score advantage over poorer districts. And within the districts, the richer children could still buy whatever additional test-prep products the market might offer, although presumably these would be subject to the law of diminishing returns.
California prohibits the classroom use of materials designed to raise scores on any one exam. Elsewhere, says McMahon, "schools have been buying [parent's guides] in droves." Some schools, she says, give the books out free to every parent; others loan them out, display them at parents' nights, or reprint tips from the books in the school newsletter. But whether or not districts urge parents to use test-prep products--and whether or not schools use them in class--the states' embrace of high-stakes testing is creating the market that produces these dilemmas.
That market is still young. Robert Schaeffer of FairTest emphasizes that we've seen only first-generation products so far. "With the SAT," he points out, "the test-prep industry has 20 years of 'knowing the enemy,' but for the new high-stakes exams there simply hasn't been the time." Test prep for fourth-graders could look very different in another year or two--or if high-stakes testing is abandoned, it could completely disappear.
The danger, though, is that the competitive market will bring out the worst in whichever companies enter the fray. So far, Kaplan and Princeton Review are in direct competition only in Texas and New York. When they are producing rival products nationwide, they'll probably feel even more pressure to guarantee results and--like the teachers themselves--to "beat the test" and skip the education.
Several decades ago, the rise of Kaplan and Princeton Review led social critics to question the place of testing in American life. Their qualms remain valid today. Yet the expansion of testing and the test-prep industry continues apace. ¤