Business cashes in on SAT relaunch

March 18, 2005

A major revamp of the pre-eminent US university admission exam is not only fuelling students' anxiety but creating a lucrative industry that markets everything from test-preparation CDs to software programs that send practice questions to mobile phone screens (obviously not during the exam).

Students sitting the SAT test this month will, for the first time, have to complete a 25-minute essay to assess reasoning and writing skills as well as the multiple-choice questions. Universities had questioned whether the test truly predicts academic success, and some institutions have stopped asking for SAT scores or are putting less emphasis on them than they used to.

Kaplan and Princeton Review, two private companies that produce written study guides and offer tutoring, have devised test SAT questions that can be sent to students' mobile phones or personal digital assistants. When the students reply with their answer, the companies grade them and transmit them automatically to the students' parents.

Kaplan, which promises to help students achieve high SAT scores or return their money, is also selling a $25 (£13) CD called Vocabulary Accelerator in which more than 300 words are woven into 12 hip-hop songs with an accompanying 13-chapter study book. For half that price you can buy the SAT Flip-O-Matic , a flashcard game with 500 SAT words, "guaranteed to make learning vocabulary words for the new SAT quick, easy and fun!"

There are also crossword puzzles and teenage-themed novels that use SAT vocabulary words, and a "College Admission Prep Camp", run on university campuses by a company called Education Unlimited. Its slogan is "Get into the college of your choice".

The most unusual entry into this new category of commerce may be one suggested by a 14-year-old girl from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and now being manufactured in China under the auspices of a business called the Intuitive Learning Company: an SAT shower curtain with 100 vocabulary words and their definitions printed on it.

It is too early to tell whether all these things will sell. But critics of the College Board, the non-profit organisation that administers the SAT, say one thing is certain: the registration fee to take the test itself has increased 41 per cent to $41.50, ensuring an additional $30 million a year in revenues. The board said the money was needed to hire people for another growth industry: reading and grading the essays.

Educators have generally welcomed the revised SAT. Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, said the changes were "designed to be less coachable and to capture more accurately what students learn in school".

William R. Fitzsimmons, the university's dean of admissions, said: "The new SAT will be a better yardstick of what people here have accomplished. The symbolic importance of stressing writing on the SAT is critical. I think it will lead to real reform."

Christoph Guttentag, director of undergraduate admissions at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, said: "The essays will give us some additional insight into students' writing and thinking ability, in conjunction with other parts of their applications."

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