November 25 — 12:00 am, 2004

Kaplan test prep program up for reconsideration

The District bought workbooks for high school students last winter and tried a 10-week drill to boost scores.

With District officials underlining that Kaplan, Inc. is one of the premiere test preparation companies in the world, the School Reform Commission followed last year’s $4.5 million Kaplan contract for high school curriculum development with recent approval of a contract for the same amount this school year.

While the new contract covers additional curriculum writing for 12th grade, a "benchmark" testing program, and professional development, one component remains unresolved.

A return of Kaplan’s test prep program for the PSSA and TerraNova tests is still being considered, according to Creg Williams, the District’s deputy chief academic officer in charge of high schools.

Noting an inherent difficulty in measuring the effectiveness of specific test prep activities, Williams said the District would collect input from teachers and staff on the first year of Kaplan’s "Test Advantage Program" in Philadelphia before deciding on whether to use the controversial program again. High school test results have been mixed.

"A lot of new things we have to evaluate," noted Williams.

A decision on the test prep program will be made soon, Williams said during a mid-November interview.

New York-based Kaplan is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Washington Post Co., with four divisions and company pace-setting revenue of $277 million, according to a July 2004 report.

Kaplan’s Test Advantage Program was ushered into the District’s high schools last winter, aimed at boosting test scores and giving students test-taking skills for the standardized tests they would be taking in the spring. Last year District officials said the program was necessary because the standardized curriculum for the high schools was not yet in place, and so students needed instruction that was aligned with the tests.

Teachers were instructed by District officials to spend 10 weeks covering the material, in blocks of 20 minutes four times a week for 11th graders, and of 20 minutes twice a week for 9th and 10th graders.

The program was workbook-based. A workbook that Kaplan designed for the TerraNova test and called "TerraNova Advantage Mathematics" spanned more than 400 pages.

"Some teachers like it, some teachers don’t like it," Williams said of the program. "But the overall response has been favorable."

Geoffrey Winikur, a teacher at Simon Gratz High School, is not one the favorable ones.

"In all, there were some basic test-taking strategies that were useful, but the materials themselves seemed sort of basic," Winikur said.

There were also unfavorable responses from students (see Struggling to make AYP: students views from two schools).

"Last year, the students, in general, hated the test prep books, which they thought were very boring," one veteran high school teacher emailed the Notebook. "A number of them tore them up and threw them out at the end of the testing. They were given the books, so it wasn’t technically school property, but there certainly wasn’t an attachment to the books."

While Williams said teachers were given flexibility in how they utilized the test prep program, Barbara Dowdall, who heads the English department at A. Philip Randolph Career and Technical High School, said, "There’s this kind of idea that there’s pressure" to strictly adhere to instructions. "They can check up on you."

Dowdall also noted that the test prep materials did not arrive until the second half of the year. With Randolph’s "block" roster, this meant that juniors had studied math and English in the fall and were on to science and social studies courses in the spring.

"So social studies teachers did English prep, and science teachers did math prep," she said. Dowdall added that Randolph had already purchased and used other test prep materials earlier in the year to cover math and English but used the Kaplan program anyway.

Jolley Bruce Christman, a senior research associate at Research for Action, pointed to the ineffectiveness of a "skill and drill" approach to improving students’ test performance, particularly for achieving sustained improvement on standardized tests.

"Typically, test scores plateau after the first three years’ implementation of a new test," Christman stated, citing local research done by Research for Action and the Consortium for Policy Research in Education from 1995 to 2000.

In schools where student performance nevertheless continued climbing, researchers here found that "teachers capitalized on opportunities to help their students develop test-taking skills and strategies during their regular daily lessons," Christman said.

Gratz’s Winikur seems one who would prefer thoughtful integration of test preparation to the Kaplan program.

"It’s sort of like ‘teaching to the test’ . . . like playing the game," he said. "Our school is under such duress, we feel we have to respond because we constantly feel under pressure. If we don’t get our AYP, we’re going to be taken over. So we do all these things. I find they’re more acts of desperation than real education."

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