Making the grade and making money; As new SAT nears, business picks up for study classes, aids

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Like accountants after a change in the tax code, test-prep companies thrive on anxiety.

And the new SAT is creating enough anxiety to drive business through the roof.

“This is the biggest growth year we’ve had in decades,” said Jon Zeitlin, general manager of SAT and ACT preparation at Kaplan, one of the two biggest test-prep companies. “Clearly students are anxious about the test change.”

In Kaplan’s Dallas office, the number of rising high school juniors signing up for SAT prep classes is up 254 percent from last year. Kaplan’s major rival, The Princeton Review, is also reporting big gains locally and nationwide. Some parents are willing to pay more than $3,000 to have their children guided through the testing wilderness.

“If the test weren’t changing, I think my parents would be fine with me just reading a book to get ready,” said Jonathan Cheung, an Episcopal School of Dallas junior. Instead, he’s taking a $1,000 class with Princeton Review.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, changes the test about once a decade, and the last revisions were in 1994. The new test is in part a response to the University of California system, which announced in 2001 it was considering dropping the SAT as an admissions requirement.

UC leaders said the test was not a strong enough predictor of student success in college. In response, the College Board announced a series of changes aimed at testing higher academic skills.

In came tougher math, including some concepts from Algebra II.

Out went analogies – viewed by some as the test’s most culturally biased section – and quantitative comparisons, a gimmicky portion of the math exam.

Most notably, in came a 25-minute essay – the first time a writing sample has been included on the SAT. College admissions officers will be able to read the essays.

“That’s what I’m worried about,” said Jordan Tunnell, a junior at Bishop Lynch High School. “You don’t get a lot of time, so you might not get to finish writing.”

The new test debuts in March, which means it’ll be a college admissions factor for the Class of 2006. This year’s seniors have already taken the old test or will take it this fall.

There are various ways to gauge the increased business. Kaplan said the number of students signing up for its free SAT practice tests is up 78 percent over last year. Amanda Farrell, director of outreach at The Princeton Review’s Dallas office, said their practice-test numbers have doubled.

Unsurprisingly, increases in business are driving up revenues. In its Aug. 9 quarterly statement, Princeton Review officials told shareholders that its tutoring business was growing rapidly, citing “anxiety about the new SAT test … we expect these market factors to continue to drive growth in the near term.”

“Whenever there’s a change in the test, it raises the anxiety level,” said Jerry Herman, an analyst at Legg Mason who tracks Princeton Review’s stock. “And potentially there could be a favorable impact on businesses that provide that preparation.”

Mr. Herman said Kaplan and Princeton Review are the clear industry leaders, with each taking about 25 percent of the national test-prep market. Kaplan has an edge with older students, such as those applying to graduate and professional schools. Princeton Review, which projects a youthful, cynical air in many of its books and products, has the edge in the $501 million K-12 market, he said.

Test-prep companies typically charge $800 to $1,000 for a class. In exchange, they’ve historically said students should expect a score gain of 100 to 200 points. Both Kaplan and Princeton Review provide some sort of guarantee if scores don’t increase. Princeton Review guarantees a gain of at least 100 points on the current SAT.

But with the new test, which has a maximum score of 2,400 instead of 1,600, the company is increasing the promised gain to 200 points. “We’re that confident that the writing test is very coachable,” Ms. Farrell said.

The new SAT is a big hit on the bookshelf, too. At the Barnes & Noble on Northwest Highway in Dallas, no fewer than 14 titles promising new SAT secrets are on sale. Nearly as many – originally written for the old test – are using the exam’s updates as a marketing opportunity. “Last Chance!” screams the spine of one title. “Take the SAT without an essay!”

The Princeton Review’s new book – 11 Practice Tests for the New SAT and PSAT – is one of the 50 best-sellers at Barnes & Noble stores nationwide and at the bookseller’s Web site. Andy Lutz, the vice president of research and development for The Princeton Review, said he expects it will shortly become the best-selling book in the company’s 23-year history. “And it’s not even peak season yet,” he said.

In June, the publishing company Sourcebooks debuted its first test-prep book, Fiske’s New SAT Insider’s Guide. “We thought it was a good time to get into testing because of the changes to the SAT,” publicist Heather Otley said. “Sales have been very good.”

The book, perhaps self-servingly, makes the argument that students gain little from test-prep classes that they couldn’t get from reading a book such as Fiske’s New SAT Insider Guide.

But for many parents, paying for a test-prep course seems like a small investment in their child’s future.

Colleen Deeb wants to make sure that her son, David Meyer, gets into Texas A&M University. But David lives in Frisco, where competition for top grades can be tough.

State law guarantees spots at A&M only to those who finish in the top 10 percent of their graduating classes. David currently in the top 20 percent, meaning he’ll likely have to impress the admissions office with another credential.

The plan: Boost his SAT score from a good 1,200 to a great 1,400. (That’s on the old SAT scale. David, who wants to be a doctor, plans to take both the old test this fall and the new one in the spring.)

“If he’s borderline getting into a state school, maybe it’s the one thing that can push him in to an admission,” Ms. Deeb said.

To reach that goal, his family is paying $3,199 for private SAT tutoring at Kaplan.

“I absolutely love it,” David said. “I wanted a customized, tailored program that had demonstrated, statistically significant success.”

Ms. Deeb said that she probably still would have paid for the tutoring even if the SAT weren’t changing. “But it definitely was a part of the decision,” she said.

Column: Only time will tell on Moses’ legacy

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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When he took office in 2000, Dallas Superintendent Mike Moses said he wanted to be judged on his actions – the improvements he brought to the district and its children.

But in a few years, how history views the Moses years will depend largely on what happens after he has walked out of his Ross Avenue office for the last time.

“If we fall apart next year, that’s going to scar his tenure as a leader,” said Robert Ward, the Madison High School principal who can barely count on two hands the number of superintendents he has served under in 26 years with DISD.

“The mark of a good leader, you would hope, is that the situation is sustained after he leaves.”

That sentiment comes up a lot among educators: that the Moses years will prove a success only if they lead to something better. Because for all the improvements the last four years have delivered, it’s still a stretch to call Dallas ISD a good school district.

A doctor examining the district’s ills in 2000 might have diagnosed three major problems:

*Instability. After shuffling through superintendents like cards, Dallas needed someone to be calm and, frankly, a little boring.

*A host of big-ticket hassles tying the district’s hands. A desegregation order meant the district couldn’t draw attendance lines where it wanted to. A bad public image meant voters wouldn’t approve a bond issue. An FBI investigation paralyzed parts of the administration.

*Poor academics. TAAS scores were awful, SAT scores were awful, AP scores were awful. By just about every measure, the district was not serving Dallas kids well.

Today, that doctor might look over his patient and think: Two out of three ain’t bad.

There’s no doubt Dr. Moses brought stability.

He hasn’t embarrassed the district by stealing furniture or going on TV impersonating a tin-cup beggar. The board hasn’t acted like it’s auditioning for the new season of Cops in years.

“The way he dealt with the board, it reflects down to the schools,” said Theodore Timms, principal at Arlington Park Elementary. “He set the standard of behavior for all of us.”

The big-ticket hassles have largely melted away. Dr. Moses is, in the very best sense of the word, a politician.

He got a huge bond issue passed, got the FBI out of the district, brought some financial stability, and got a federal judge to end the desegregation order.

These are all big deals. But you’ll forgive Dallas’ schoolchildren if they haven’t noticed. Other than the bond issue – whose rewards are still mostly some years away – these are things that matter mostly to adults who wear suits. They’re structural changes.

They’re important. But will they, by themselves, make Dallas schools a better place to get an education?

Test scores are up, but they’re still the lowest of any large urban district in Texas. They’re even lower than those of school districts whose students are poorer. School violence is at or near record levels.

It’s certainly not true that Dr. Moses didn’t address academics.

He did.

In elementary schools, principals like the newly standardized reading curriculum. In high schools, they like the emphasis on pushing more kids into advanced classes.

And teachers give positive reviews to the new character education program and the laptops the district now gives them.

But the thrust of his time in office was more macro than micro. It’s understandable – was there even enough time for Dr. Moses to visit all 218 schools in the district?

To put it in baseball terms, Dr. Moses wasn’t the closer. He’s the set-up man.

“If we continue with success, then Moses was an effective leader,” said Pedro Galaviz, principal of Bonham Elementary. “If he leaves and we fail, that says he couldn’t make it last.

“But for these children, in order for them to have a fair chance in life, we have to clear the obstacles they have in front of them,” Mr. Galaviz said.

“We here in the schools, whether Moses is there or not, we have to provide for them.”

Joshua Benton covers education for The Dallas Morning News. He can be reached at jbenton@dallasnews.com.

Health plan fee angers teachers; Aetna charging up to $42 a year to run savings program

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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It may be only $42. But the newest cut in teachers’ paychecks has some of them fighting mad.

“The amount is small, but it enrages our members far beyond the dollars involved,” said John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers.

At issue is a change in the health-care stipends that teachers receive from the state. Starting Sept. 1, $30 to $42 will be deducted from each teacher’s annual income to pay insurance company Aetna, which will administer the state’s new health savings program. Aetna’s fees add up to more than $20 million a year for what some Texas teachers contend is no work at all.

They pledge to make it an issue in the fall’s legislative campaigns if Aetna isn’t given the boot. The Legislature already cut teachers’ health-care stipends in half last year.

“It’s just a slap in the face to teachers,” said Judy Bryant, a teacher at Dallas’ Health Special High School. “We need that money.”

Restricting funds

The Legislature created the health-care stipends in 2001 and originally gave school district employees $1,000 a year. That sum could be used to pay health insurance premiums or any other benefit offered by a school district. Teachers could also take it as salary, though it would then become subject to federal income tax.

In its 2003 regular session, the Legislature, facing a budget crunch, considered eliminating the stipend altogether. In the end, it cut the stipend to $500 for teachers and $250 for part-time employees. The stipend for administrators was eliminated.

The Legislature also changed the way the money would be distributed. Under the old system, the funds went directly to school districts, which then distributed them to employees. Under the new system, the money is deposited into individual health reimbursement accounts, or HRAs.

HRAs restrict how the money can be used; for example, it can no longer be taken as salary. But the accounts allow teachers greater flexibility in how they spend their money tax-free, such as on visits to doctors not covered in a district’s health plan.

HRAs also require a firm to administer the accounts. So the Teacher Retirement System requested bids, and Aetna won. The company will charge teachers $2.50 a month in administrative fees, plus an additional $1 for teachers who want to use a debit card.

“They’re getting paid just to have our money sit in their accounts for a nanosecond,” Mr. Cole said.

Aetna’s expenses were substantially higher than what the HRA’s legislative backer, Rep. Dianne Delisi, expected.

“All the testimony we had heard was that administrative costs were typically $15 to $18 a year,” the Temple Republican said.

When asked Tuesday for comment on the fees and its contract, an Aetna spokesman issued a four-sentence statement, saying that HRAs can produce tax savings for teachers and that Aetna is “pleased to be working with TRS and Texas teachers to make this a positive experience.”

Reconsidering

Ms. Delisi sponsored a House plan in 2003 to create the reimbursement accounts. But in this summer’s special session, she sought to postpone the introduction of HRAs until the Legislature could meet again and reconsider. Her proposal was in the main school finance bill that passed the House but never reached a vote in the Senate.

“Hindsight is always better,” she said. “If I had known what the bid would be from Aetna, then my course of action would have been different.”

Mr. Cole said he wants the Legislative Budget Board to stop the new policy’s implementation by refusing to approve the funds the Teacher Retirement System would need to start the accounts. But Ms. Delisi said that was unlikely.

Mr. Cole said his group would demand pledges from all candidates that they will reconsider the program and Aetna’s fees in the next session.

“It’s a sweet deal for Aetna, but it’s a rotten deal for school employees,” he said.

Ms. Delisi said the reimbursement accounts and Aetna’s fees would be more acceptable if the stipend were larger. She added that she hopes the state’s financial picture will allow a return to the larger stipend in the next session.