Preparing for the Scholastic Aptitude Test. (evaluation) Owen W. Linzmayer.
Several times a year, tens of thousands of high school students converge on cafeterias, classrooms, and auditoriums to engage in what some would call the most harrowing experience of their lives--taking the SAT. The Scholastic Aptitude Test is a standardized multiple-choice test that is used primarily by college admissions directors to estimate how well the applicant will do in college courses. While other factors such as class ranking, course grades, and personality come into play, the SAT score remains highly influential in the admissions decison-making process.
To help students prepare for this test, many book publishers have introduced generalized guidebooks on how to take such tests. Others publish huge tomes replete with sample SAT-like self-administered examinations. Many local schools offer expensive night courses with qualified instructors who drill students with questions and are available to clarify perplexing areas of study.
For students who have access to personal computers, there is another choice: software packages designed specifically to help them prepare for the SAT. The five packages we examined range in price from $20 to $300. What is the difference? What do you get for $300 that you don't get for $20 or vice versa? Are the more expensive packages worth the extra money, or can a cheaper package do the job just as well? These are the questions we would ask if we were trying to prepare a student to take the SAT. They are the questions you should ask. What follows are the answers we found. Krell's College Board SAT
The first thing that you will probably notice about Krell's package is the whopping $300 price tag. That in itself might be enough to send you looking elsewhere. If you survive the initial shock and take the time to get some hands-on experience with the program, you will discover one of the best preparatory packages around.
You may be saying to yourself "I can't possibly afford to spend $300 on one program!" Bear in mind, however, that several of these packages are aimed not only at the individual consumer, but also at schools with computer systems. If your school system has a computer, you might suggest that $300 spread over the college-bound portion of the senior class would be a worthwhile and not unreasonably large investment.
Unfortunately, the Krell documentation booklet specifically forbids the purchaser of the program to give or lend it to a student for use on his own computer. On what grounds this prohibition is made and how Krell enforces it we do not know. What we do know is that this policy effectively closes the door on one way in which schools which do not have computers could possibly justify the purchase of this excellent program.
The Krell package includes 10 program disks covering subjects such as vocabulary, math, sentence completion, analogies, and the Test of Standard Written Englisn (TSWE); 47 pages of documentation; and the 6th edition of The As & Bs of Academic Scholarships, an extremely useful book in this day of limited federal funding.
Like most of the multi-disk packages, the Krell program follows the same general format in each of the sections. The first option you are given is whether you want to engage the automatic learning feature. Using this feature increases the probability that you will be asked questions similar to those with which you have previously had difficulty. This feature is especially useful as it keeps the user from becoming bored with questions of a type that he has already mastered, and drills him instead on more difficult ones. Vocabulary
To give you a taste of the Krell package, let's look at one of the vocabulary disks. After selecting the automatic learning feature, you choose the number of questions (1-1000) you wish to answer. The computer accesses the disk for a second and then comes back with the first question. It displays a word and asks that you select from the five possible answers the word that is, for example, most opposite in meaning. If your choice is wrong, you are told immediately and shown the correct answer.
After every question you are shown your current score. After completing the desired number of questions you are presented with the final results, and you may save your "learning coefficients" to disk for use with the automatic learnings feature.
In all, there are more than 8000 questions on the two vocabulary disks. They are presented in random fashion so that you cannot become familiar with the subject matter simply by rote. Mathematics And TSWE
The math program gives you the option of viewing how the correct solution was derived after you input your answer. Then, if you like, you can choose to attempt another similar question.
This type of instant reinforcement is also found in the TSWE. After you determine which part of a sentence contains the grammatical error, if any exists, the computer gives a complete explanation of what was wrong with the sentence in question and names the type of error that was committed. Documentation
The documentation contained in the small format, spiral bound booklet that serves as documentation for the program can best be described as scanty. Outside of a few paragraphs of specific notes for users of the different machines for which the package is available, the contents of the booklet consist entirely of supplementary material and sample questions.
We would have given the documentation a higher grade if it had included even a few paragraphs on test taking strategies or suggestions for study in areas in which you might find yourself lacking. Summary
On the whole, however, Krell's College Board SAT exam preparation series is a fine package and worthy of commendation. The people at Krell are so sure of the worthiness of this program that for a limited time they actually guaranteed that test takers would increase their combined scores by at least 70 points.
Unfortunately, the high price will probably keep it out of the hands of most individual users.
CIRCLE 4200 ON READER SERVICE CARD Mastering The SAT
The second package we examined was Mastering the SAT from CBS Software which sells for $150. Are all good SAT packages expensive? We began to wonder.
This package was developed in cooperation with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and it shows; Mastering the SAT is both well designed and pragmatic.
Mastering the SAT is a four-disk package that is designed to strengthen basic learning skills. There are three operational modes: the Examination Mode, the Instruction Mode, and the Skill Builders Mode. You are encouraged to begin by taking two simulated SATs to establish your ability in each of the areas of study: math, verbal, and TSWE. For the sake of comparison, let's take a look at what the verbal test has to offer.
The verbal test is broekn down into four sections, each of which is separately loaded from disk and presented in two parts; opposites, sentence completion, analogies, and reading comprehension. In each section of the test you are presented with a question and provided with five possible answers. You must complete all four sections before your test will be scored.
Upon completion, answers are scored and analyzed. This analysis is very thorough and points out your specific areas of weakness, right down to what types of questions presented problems. A nice feature is that you can get a hardcopy of the analysis by asking the program to send it to the printer as well as the video monitor. Armed with the diagnosis of your test, you then enter the post-test mode which provides an explanation of each question for which you request clarification.
Once you realize where you went wrong and why, you can use the skill builder modules to strengthen your ability to handle those questions in the future. Within each moedule there is a large selection of questions which are presented in a more or less random fashion, though some repeating of questions is evident. We were particularly impressed with the thorough explanations and diagrams which accompany most problems--especially the math questions. This feature helps you to concentrate on concepts rather than just correct answers. Documentation
The 148-page, small format, perfect bound documentation booklet begins with general instructions for using the program. Following are 16 pages of test taking strategies, focusing on the various types of questions and skills used in the SAT.
The remainder of the booklet consists of the two stimulated SAT tests, their answers, and supplementary material for the mathematics section of the computerized questions.
The tone of the writing in the booklet seems carefully calculated to give the reader confidence without inspiring panic. the suggestions for approaching various types of questions are concrete, and the sample questions increase in difficulty as you become familiar with each concept. Summary
We recommend Mastering the SAT very highly. The price is high for individual users, but should present no problem for most school districts. Nor could we find any prohibition that would prevent schools from lending the program to students.
The name of the program is significant. CBS wants you to master the material in the SAT through understanding rather than by rote. We like that approach.
CIRCLE 421 ON READER SERVICE CARD Preparing For The SAT
Preparing for the SAT by Program Design, Inc. seems to be a package in search of an identity. Parts of it are well done, while other parts lack the professional approach apparent in most of its competitors. The program seems to be trying to be tutorial rather than just a series of questions and answers, a goal of which we certainly approve, but somehow it falls short.
The program takes advantage of the graphics and sound capabilities of the Atari to the detriment of the package. The large, colorful, flashing words and numbers and the sound explosions which "reward" correct answers seem better suited to an elementary school level program than one aimed at presumably serious high school students.
Joystick input also seems out of place. Some of the math sections require you to choose your answer with the joystick, an exercise we found distracting and frustrating. The program, which is written in Basic, does not check for input from the oystick often enough, so each move of the cursor requires more than a few taps on the stick. PDI, it seems, is a victom of the "just because it can be done doesn't mean it ought to be done" syndrome. We prefer the straightforward keyboard input approach taken by the other programs. Documentation
Preparing for the SAT comes with six disks, two professionally produced large format manuals, and an audio cassette. Written by John Victor, Making the Grade is a 34-page book that presents useful information about how the SAT and other aptitude tests are designed, as well as specific test-taking procedures to help improve your scores. The other book contains the instructions and is the best set of documentation we saw in preparing these reviews.
Both books offer specific suggestions and strategies for test taking as well as pragmatic instructions for attacking a myriad of different kinds of questions and problems.
The audio cassette is used as an adjunct to some of the math exercises and as the base for a tutorial on Taking Aptitude Tests. We found the tutorial math material especially useful, but were offended by the word cassette on one of the instruction screens. Vocabulary
There are four areas of study: vocabulary builder, analogies, number series, and quantitative comparisons. As with the other packages we reviewed, we began with the vocabulary section, which consists of two parts, the second of which is considerably more difficult than the first. Each part contains ten modules comprised of 40 questions each. You can choose the number of questions (1-40) you wish to try at any given sitting. The questions always appear in the same order, although you can choose which one you want to start with.
As in all of the other packages, a word is presented and five possible answers are shown. Depending on the type of question, you must choose the word that is opposite or similar in meaning to the target word. If you guess incorrectly, you continue guessing until you get it right. The sound effects are the same, whether you respond correctly on the first or fifth try. When you finish, or quit, the screen clears and the results are tallied up.
Here, again, we found a misspelled word among the choices in one of the first questions we saw. Mathematics
We found the math section of much more use than the vocabulary modules. The documentation accompanying the math questions is quite good, and the questions presented are very typical of the questions asked on the actual SAT.
In the math section, PDI comes closest to its goal of preparing the student for the SAT in a tutorial manner. You study by listerning to the tape and referring to the explanations in the book and then answering appropriate questions. Summary
As we said before, Preparing for the SAT seems to be having an identity crisis. It tries to be a series educational package, but it acts as if it were an elementary school program upgraded for use by teenagers.
The documentation is excellent, but the quality of the accompanying program does not do it justice, and we find inexcusable the presence of misspelled words in a program of this sort. How much faith can you have in a program that doesn't know how to spell cassette?
CIRCLE 422 ON READER SERVICE CARD SAT Math I And SAT English I
Providing a marked contrast to the costly packages reviewed above, the Micro Learn SAT programs cost only $30 each. Micro Lab President Stanley Goldberg says it is not his goal "to make a huge profit on our educational titles." That is a refreshing thought, indeed.
The packages are sold separately, but they are so similar that we will review them together. Each program disk is double-sided, and divided into two modes: tutorial and testing.
The testing mode is fine, but we prefer the tutorial mode because it offers instantaneous response. In fact, the tutorial mode is actually the same as the testing mode with the exception that the correct answers and explanations are disclosed immediately after you enter your answer. We found that the sooner we learned whether we were right or wrong the better we were able to remember the correct concept.
Both packages present questions and answers in the multiple-choice format. As in the more expensive SAT packages, an explanation is given for each answer along with the correct response. This is the strongest aspect of the Micro Learn approach. Documentation
The documentation for both programs is the same except for the two pages which discuss the content of the specific disk. Each package contains a four-page leaflet which limits itself to instructions for using the program. A two-sided insert describes the objectives of the program and the kinds of questions that are included.
There is absolutely no tutorial material or test taking strategy in the documentation--but what do you want for $30? Summary
Our only significant criticism of the package is the time spent accessing the disk. We had heard rumors that the Commodore 64 disk drive was slow, but we had no idea what lethargy could be until we ran this program. After every question the disk drive is accessed for the next set of questions and answers, and you just sit and wait for between 10 and 30 seconds! But time is the price you pay for not having to pay the monetary price of most of the other packages. We also assume that the problem is less pronounced in the Apple version, since its disk drive is so much faster.
All things considered, the Micro Learn software compares very favorably with its higher priced competitors. The content is similar, and the price puts the programs within easy reach of individual users. We recommend the Micro Learn packages with the single caveat that at least the Commodore version is not for the impatient.
CIRCLE 423 ON READER SERVICE CARD Preparing Your Child For the SAT/Math
We discovered Know How software at the Alpha software booth at the Consumer Electronics Show. Their line of no-frills educational software sells for $14.98 and $19.98--surely a bargain if the content were up to par. So we brought home a package and had a look.
Unfortunately, Preparing Your Child for the SAT/Math comes under the category heading of Also Ran.
The documentation, which fits on a file card, offers a brief description of the program and tells you how to insert the disk in the disk drive.
The program itself is linear, meaning that the questions are presented one after another in the same order. The instruction card calls this "linear programming" which it says "reinforces the user and builds on patterns of response." Could that possibly be another way of saying "allows the user to memorize the answers in sequence"? Some questions offer the option of an explanation before you enter your answer, but otherwise, tutorial material is absent.
While the caliber of the questions presented is about average for the programs we reviewed, there is just too much missing. As a supplemental practice program, Preparing Your Child might be worth $20, but if you are looking for a competent, inexpensive SAT preparation package, choose the Micro Learn package for only $10 more.
Products: Krell's College Board SAT (computer program)
Mastering the SAT (Educational software)
Preparing for the SATR and Other Aptitute Tests (computer program)
SAT English, SAT Math I (computer program)
Preparing Your Child for the SAT-Math (computer program)