It’s All in the Preparation

Needing every possible edge, students are looking to online solutions to get them ready for college admissions exams.

As she prepared for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) last fall, Tiffany Riley had no use for traditional test-prep materials. She found them “intimidating” because they presented all the study material at once. Plus, they were just a plain waste of time, since they forced her to slog through subject matter she already knew. For the more targeted help she needed, Riley discovered Grockit. The web-based test-prep service allows students to sign up with online tutors for group or one-on-one lessons, as well as engage in “solo practice,” in which they take timed test questions and receive diagnostic reports on how they performed and what areas they can improve on.

The tutoring sessions require a fee, but Grockit’s real draw is its free “group study” feature, a live social learning environment that also mixes in a gaming aspect. Students tackle practice questions from the SAT or the American College Test (ACT) covering the same math and English material that would be covered in a regular prep course. The wrinkle is they work out the problems alongside other students on the site, with whom they can discuss their solutions by chat before moving on to the next question. Points are earned for answering questions correctly and for helping others solve a problem. Players strive to top the point rankings online and to win “hot streak” badges for answering a run of questions accurately. Another element of the site’s appeal to the social networking culture, a Grockit app enables students to post their results onto their Facebook pages.

“Grockit brought studying to life,” says Riley, who in May graduated from King Kekaulike High School on the Hawaiian island of Maui. “I was no longer sitting alone at the library or at home reading an SAT prep book. I was playing games and learning about math, English, and writing with people from all over the world.”

Riley needed any edge she could get, considering the amount of competition there is for spots in US colleges and universities. More than 3.3 million students graduated from high school this year, according to projections from the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education. That’s over a million more than only 15 years ago, when the “baby boom echo” began coming of age, coinciding with the advent and ease of online applications.

STUDY BUDDY Students at Florida’s Vero Beach High School spend two hours a week at school plus another three hours at home using Study Island to prepare for their standardized tests.

Fortunately, as online tools are helping to drive up college applications, they are also helping students perform better on college entrance exams. Riley logged on to Grockit for up to two hours a day, and she credits the tool for raising her score by better than 100 points on each of the three sections of the SAT. Those scores, along with her volunteer social work, tutoring underclassmen, taking on leadership roles in extracurricular clubs, and performance in honors and AP classes, landed her at the University of the Pacific’s School of Pharmacy in Stockton, CA.

Web-based test-prep solutions also address the criticism commonly directed at traditional classes and private tutoring: Their sizeable cost creates an unfair advantage for students who have the means to pay for them. Technology evens the field by making test prep more affordable.

Consider how online testing services have helped graduates of DC Prep, a K-8 charter school in Washington, DC. The eighth-graders from the school’s inaugural graduating class of 2007 just wrapped up their junior year at various high schools in the DC area. Lindsay Fallon, DC Prep’s director of alumni support, has stayed on top of the school’s former students to see that they get help preparing for the SAT.

Do-It-Yourself Test Prep

Rather than seeking out an existing product or service, Chicago International Charter School, a network of K-12 campuses across Chicago, developed its own test-prep curriculum, working with learning technology provider Promethean. “A lot of the material out there was created by people who got a 36 on the ACT [American College Test], and that’s fine for those kids,” says school board member Tom Nieman, “but we wanted to meet our kids where they were.”

The collaboration between Chicago International and Promethean produced the “Preparing for Standardized Tests” program, a collection of reading and math lessons conducted in the classroom and designed to be carried out on Promethean’s interactive whiteboard, the ActivBoard. Teachers at Chicago International present each two-part lesson in 15- to 20-minute segments so that test prep doesn’t soak up the entire class period. Students can work out test questions on the interactive whiteboard as well as submit answers via student response clickers.

“It allows students to participate simultaneously and to work more as a group, instead of going off to do [test-prep] practice in their bedrooms,” says Nieman, who owns a company that develops curricular materials for educational publishers.

Results are available instantly and can be used by teachers to guide the discussion that follows. The data is also exported to the teacher’s gradebook so student progress toward college readiness can be tracked skill by skill.

Chicago International spent last year installing ActivBoards in its classrooms and is still determining the program’s impact on test scores. This fall will kick off the first full school year of use.

Many DC Prep graduates will be the first in their families to go on to college, so taking the SAT is a major challenge because of their unfamiliarity with the test, Fallon says. Although she considered local test-prep programs, the cost was too steep. She also wanted to be present during the sessions to make sure the students stayed on task. Thus, the live, online group SAT classes introduced this spring by ed tech provider Knewton were ideal. The format allowed Fallon to keep watch, while Knewton provided the classes for free as part of its community outreach efforts; normally the one-year course costs $490.

Over the spring, twice a week for five weeks, students came to DC Prep’s computer lab to study math and English under the instruction of a Knewton teacher streamed live from the company’s New York City headquarters. A teaching assistant answered students’ questions via chat during the sessions. Outside the live class, students could log on to the company’s website to watch recorded lessons, look up key vocabulary, and e-mail queries to Knewton instructors.

Fallon had misgivings initially about an online course, fearing bored students might sit back without learning, but the medium helped hold their interest. “It’s ‘cool’ to be on the computer, and they enjoyed chatting with their teacher through the chat box,” she says. DC Prep won’t know the impact on scores until the results for the June SAT exam come back, but Fallon says student feedback has been positive.

In Florida, students can double-dip with online test-prep tools: prepare for the ACT while also boosting their efforts to pass the mandatory state exit exam. The state allows results on college admissions tests to be used to meet the required score for passing the exit exam. In Vero Beach, FL, Vero Beach High School has begun using Archipelago Learning’s Study Island, a subscription-based online service that employs short, animated lessons to teach content as well as test-taking strategies.

Principal Eric Seymour brought the program to Vero Beach last fall to help with standardized-test prep, trained his teachers in it, and has worked it into the school curriculum. On average, each week his students spend two hours at school, either in the classroom or the computer lab, plus three hours at home using Study Island. Students with a “double block” of intensive math or reading can spend 30 minutes out of the 90 on the program. Those who need to make up course credits can also use the service, with their results on the various quizzes, worksheets, and lessons factored into their grades.

The program has helped produce big gains among Vero Beach students, who included eight finalists for National Merit Scholarships this year, a reflection of their performance on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), the trial run before the SAT. The school just had its highest-ever percentage of students take advanced placement exams. Seymour says that last year 99 percent of AP students took an AP test, compared to only 75 percent the year before. He attributes the rise to the boost in confidence and competency levels the students gained from working with Study Island.

“It’s kid-friendly and can challenge any kid regardless of innate ability,” he says, adding that the school saved more than $54,000 in printed test-prep books and materials by using the online service. “Students are much more compelled to be attentive.”


Grockit - grockit.com

Knewton - knewton.com

Study Island - studyisland.com

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of THE Journal.