May 3, 1995

Software Products Can Give You A Good Taste Of What’s In Store On Admissions Test

Robert E. Calem New York Times

On May 6, more than a million high school students across the country will take the SAT, the college admissions test. Their hopes will teeter on answers to geometry and analogy questions - those little numbered ovals filled in with that No. 2 pencil.

In a bid to improve their scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test, about 10 percent of those students are paying hundreds of dollars for extracurricular courses marketed by companies that promise to sharpen test-taking strategies. But what options exist for the majority of anxious test-takers, who are unable to enroll in such courses because of the cost or conflicting schedules or lack of room?

An age-old answer is test-prep books, generally less than $20. A better option for families with personal computers is software that mimics the courses for not much more than the cost of a textbook.

The three leading SAT prep software packages, all priced at about $50 and available for both IBM-compatible and Macintosh PCs, are “Cliffs Studyware for the SAT I,” Davidson’s “Your Personal Trainer for the SAT” and “Inside the SAT” from the Princeton Review, one of the two most popular SAT prep-course companies.

The other leader in the test-prep field, Kaplan, is planning to introduce similar software during the second half of this year.

And even the College Board, the not-for-profit trade association of 3,000 high schools and colleges that sponsors the test, will release a competing program, “One-on-One With the SAT,” in June in time to help students prepare for tests scheduled for Oct. 14, Nov. 4 and Dec. 2.

The three programs available now are multimedia applications, which combine sound and graphics - some include video - with the usual serving of text. All use the built-in intelligence of the computer to monitor the student’s right and wrong answers constantly in practice drills and mock tests and to provide immediate instructive feedback about each answer, in prose and instruction that occasionally borders on dull.

The quality varies: the Cliffs and Princeton programs explain both correct and incorrect answers, while Davidson’s explains only correct choices. All show how much time was spent pondering each question, as well as how many answers were correct or incorrect in the math and the verbal categories. Best appearance and strategic tips: Inside the SAT, from the Princeton Review (no list price, but sells for $40 to $50 in stores), contains the most complete lessons and drills. There are finely tuned explanations of incorrect and correct answers and drills that even ask the student to figure the incorrect answer purposely. The point is to teach the student what mistakes not to make on test day.

“Inside the SAT” comes on five floppy disks and contains no video, only some graphics that occasionally move. Of the three programs, it is the most visually appealing and therefore the easiest to comprehend at a glance - over all, the best of the group.

A CD-ROM version with many more multimedia elements, including videos of teachers critiquing the student’s responses, is promised for August. The price has not been determined. Well-detailed lessons: Your Personal Trainer for the SAT (Davidson & Associates, $49.95 list), also on CD-ROM, contains a short introductory video that is not part of the practice software. The practice portion is the weakest of the three in visual appeal, and the program requires the most movement of the mouse to navigate the screen.

Only general strategic tips and short explanations of correct answers are given, and a brief tour of the program uncovered no explanation of incorrect answers during drills. It rates below Princeton and above Cliffs for the extensiveness of its lessons. The most multimedia for the money: Cliffs Studyware for the SAT I (Cliffs Studyware, $49.95 list; about $35 to $45 at computer stores and some bookstores). The CD-ROM contains 45 videotaped lessons explaining how the test questions should be answered.

The software also offers the chance to look up certain vocabulary words in the program’s glossary. Every answer - even an incorrect one - is accompanied by an explanation. A timer offers the actual time of day, the elapsed time or the time remaining to finish the section.

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