This spring, high school juniors will be facing a brand new SAT, with updated structure and content. As of March 2005, Algebra II topics will be introduced, Quantitative Comparisons will be expunged, and words like "expunged" will be required knowledge for Sentence Completion and Critical Reading. Analogies will be a challenge of the past, and in their stead will be Identifying Sentence Error, Improving Paragraph questions, and a 25-minute essay to replace the current English SAT II.
Preparatory services, including teacher-taught classes, private tutors, and on-line tutorials, have stepped up to the challenge with updated lessons and techniques. In October, we reviewed Peterson's, Barron's, and Princeton Review, but now that Kaplan and Bridges have unveiled their new SAT products, we want to add them to the option list. (The College Board, which also offers an online prep course, declined to participate in our review.) Which is the best choice, as usual, depends on budget, time constraints, and learning styles. Teacher-taught classes often cost $700 and up and require a commitment to set hours and location. The online tutorials, however, are available for log-in whenever students have time and range from $10.95 to $399.99. Available for the PSAT and ACT as well, these online courses offer explicit skill development, test-taking strategies, guided practice, and immediate feedback.
Kaplan's comprehensive online course for the new SAT will be launching in March, but SAT QuizBank, which opened its cyber doors in November, is an intriguing option. It provides a customizable quiz builder that allows users to select a subject area (Writing, Critical Reading, or Math) and the number of and type of questions, as well as features like hints, explanations, and timed testing.
The hints and explanations are beneficial tools if students are shaky on the concepts. Not all the hints are helpful (e.g., "Always make sure that you know what the question is asking you to solve before you dive into the problem"), but most are appropriately specific. The explanations define the relevant skill or concept — though with explanations available, students may be tempted to correct every answer before submitting the results, thereby skewing the scores. Teachers might want to include only hints during the quiz and let students explore explanations when they're done.
Students can build their own practice quizzes with Kaplan's SAT QuizBank.
Quiz results are delivered pronto, with pie charts, percentages, and categories of difficulty. Even better, students can revisit each question in Review Mode to see whether they got it right, why, and how much time they spent on it.
SAT QuizBank is a relatively affordable option for students who are down to the wire and haven't time for course syllabi. They can quiz themselves on various topics and skills, gradually increasing the difficulty and length of tests. There's no essay writing practice — a notable drawback — but for learners who want instruction, drill, and results, this is a useful and versatile product.
TestGear's online SAT course is a full-service addition to high schools' college-prep resources. Available by site license only, TestGear builds an entire SAT curriculum for each student, personalized on the basis of a short assessment that includes both self-evaluation (students are asked how good they are at algebra, for example) and objective evaluation in the form of sample questions. The result is a customized Curriculum of Practorials (tutorials on specific skill sets) and MicroCourses (for strategy skills) to strengthen areas of need.
After a brief assessment of skills, TestGear creates a personalized curriculum for each student.
Practorials offer strategies, simple graphics, and encouragement in a style that's friendly and accessible, though possibly grating on teens with highly developed aversions to cute. MicroCourses are subdivided by challenge level (Basic, Intermediate, or Advanced), and students can select courses in any order. There's a lab for vocabulary drill — set up like a video game, with timer, points accrued, and Ten Best Scores — and a comprehensive curriculum on essay writing, from planning and drafting to revising and self-evaluation. Unfortunately, though there's ample opportunity to practice essay writing, the only feedback is self-generated, as students must compare their writing to sample essays and assess their own skills.
TestGear has much to offer students who can benefit from reading-based instruction; with its high instruction-to-practice ratio, it's a good resource for students who need more explan-ation than drill. The program's best feature is its wealth of material, providing abundant instruction and practice for the proactive and motivated. It could easily become a valued part of any high school resource lab or teacher-monitored preparation course.
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Multiple Choices for SAT Prep
The following companies offer resources-online and otherwise-for SAT preparation.
Barron's Test Prep
Gorilla Test Prep
Sylvan Learning Centers
The Study Hall
Triumph College Admissions
Stephanie Gold is a San Francisco-based educational consultant and freelance writer.