Personal Business: EDUCATION
COMPUTER TUTORS TO HELP YOU ACE THE SAT
I approach most journalistic tasks with enthusiasm. So why did an assignment to evaluate software aimed at helping high school juniors and seniors prepare for the Scholastic Assessment Test make me cringe? The answer, of course, is that no matter how old you are, you never forget the pain of taking an exam that can make or break your dreams of getting into the right college.
Yet having reacquainted myself with algebra, analogies, and quantitative comparisons, I can report to parents of college-bound youths that most of the programs I explored may well ease your son's or daughter's jitters. And with the next exam (formerly called the Scholastic Aptitude Test) scheduled for Oct. 14, there may still be time to lift their scores.
DIAGNOSTIC TESTS. The SAT programs for Windows and Macintosh PCs range from the no-nonsense Cliffs StudyWare for the SAT I from Cliffs Notes, to The Underground CD-ROM Handbook for the SAT, a rather annoying (to this grownup, anyway) effort from Swfte International and Workman Publishing, billed as providing "unauthorized techniques to deliver your best SAT score ever." The program features animated caricatures of four real-life Ivy League students, but I felt like I was getting tutored by Beavis and Butthead. Zelos Digital Learning's Team SAT also uses student mentors, but in video clips instead of cartoons. My favorite programs came from Davidson & Associates, Kaplan Interactive, the Learning Co., and the Princeton Review.
The great promise of multimedia software is to personalize an interactive learning experience not possible in a tutorial book. As students take diagnostic practice tests, the top programs can analyze their strengths and weaknesses and prescribe learning exercises that best suit them. To simulate the experience, Davidson's software comes with a paper test booklet that's a replica of the real thing. Score Builder for the SAT from the Learning Co. not only asks students to answer questions but also queries them on how they arrived at their responses. Then the program maps out a study plan that emphasizes the skills they need to master, without wasting time on stuff they already know. Students can take practice tests in test mode (timed, without feedback) or tutor mode (an untimed exam with immediate explanations.)
Any software is vastly cheaper than Kaplan's and the Princeton Review's SAT prep classes, which cost up to $700. And students can work at their own pace and schedule, though any score hikes will be related to how much time a kid puts in. (Kaplan says three to four hours a week for six weeks is basic, though 12 weeks is better.) Still, if you can afford it, "a good review course will always be better than a good software program," says Jim Reynolds, director of electronic publishing at the Princeton Review.
The main menu on the Princeton Review's fine Inside the SAT and PSAT product is an animated high school corridor. (The shorter PSAT is the preliminary version of the SAT and qualifies students for National Merit Scholarships.) Students can click on doors with such labels as "verbal," "math," and "tests." Behind the "guidance counselor" door, they can compare results on practice tests to the average scores needed to get into 300 schools. The program also identifies 300 commonly used vocabulary words it claims show up repeatedly on the test, such as "abhor," "replete," and "surfeit."
FEEDBACK FEATURE. SAT RoadTrip 96 from Kaplan Interactive uses an automotive dashboard as its main interface menu screen. Students can personalize a study plan based on how much time they have before the exam, and, after some practice exams, get excellent feedback on their test-taking habits. During a diagnostic practice test, users can click on a "sure" or "unsure" button to indicate how confident they are in their answers.
The Kaplan program lets them know how well they did in each category. It keeps track of the number of times a correct answer was changed to the wrong answer, and an incorrect answer made right. And it tells students the five longest times it took to come up with a correct answer, and five longest times on a wrong response. On pacing, Kaplan recommends students spend 30 to 60 seconds on easy questions, 45 to 75 on medium ones, and 60 to 90 seconds on the hardest choices. With Kaplan's SAT program comes a separate college-search software disk and a link to Kaplan Online on America Online, where students can download sample questions and a digital practice test for free. Now, let's see, if 2X-5=9, then 3X+2=...
Grading SAT Prep Software
CLIFFS STUDYWARE Takes serious, straightforward ap-
FOR THE SAT I proach. Includes videos narrated by
CLIFFS NOTES, $60* test expert Jerry Bobrow.
INSIDE THE SAT AND PSAT Has sense of humor that may appeal
THE PRINCETON to youths. Uses video lessons and
REVIEW, $50* animation to make rote topics fun.
SAT ROADTRIP 96 Customizes study plan based on how
KAPLAN INTERACTIVE, $30 long student has to prepare for exam.
Includes link to America Online.
YOUR PERSONAL TRAINER Comes with paper test booklet to
FOR THE SAT simulate real exam. When students
DAVIDSON, $35 are puzzled by questions, they can
click on strategies button for tips.
ALL AVAILABLE IN WINDOWS AND MACINTOSH
DATA: BUSINESS WEEKEDITED BY AMY DUNKIN Edward Baig