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A Useful Study Aid or Jazzed-Up Novelty?

A Useful Study Aid or Jazzed-Up Novelty?

Some are calling test-prep software on cell phones a democratizing equalizer, others say it increases the gap between the haves and the have-nots

By Lydia Lum

Carl Washburn wondered how to push his teen-age son into studying for the SAT. After all, it’s well-known that prepared students tend to score higher than those who aren’t. Then Washburn realized his son’s cell phone could prove a compatible study buddy. So he and others at his company developed a cell phone application that offers sample SAT questions for studying on the go.

“My son and his friends either have their phones in their pockets or nearby in their chargers,” Washburn says. “They already love the technology of the phone, the color screens, the fast processors. Now, the study becomes the distraction.”

Indeed, various software developers have introduced programs transforming cell phones into study aids. And studying for the SAT, considered by teens as glamorous as cleaning their rooms, is becoming hip. Unlike phone calls and Internet surfing, however, the technology allows users to download sets of SAT flashcards, drills and practice tests onto the handset so that no-call zones don’t affect them. In other words, they can study during camping trips in the wilderness. And some wireless carriers don’t count SAT studying against a user’s monthly minutes.

SAT review programs vary from one carrier to another. They typically feature multiple-choice math, grammar and vocabulary questions. Once a user selects an answer, feedback and tips appear on the phone’s screen.

A correct answer can elicit special ring tones, beeps or flashes of light. In some instances, phones can be programmed to ring at certain times of the day so that students answer questions during “dead time” such as waiting on the school bus. Some applications let parents check on a student’s progress by surveying the question-and-answer results online. Costs vary from carrier to carrier, but are often less than $10 a month.

Proponents praise the wireless applications as fun attention-grabbers compared to mundane options such as taking the PSAT; studying from guides as hefty as phone books; and enrolling in brick-and-mortar review courses. However, they’re skeptical of students relying on cell phones as a sole study aid. The College Board encourages students to take “rigorous courses” in high school and to read a lot, says spokeswoman Sandra Riley.

And in fact, the phones have limitations. They can’t help students practice essay writing, which is a requirement of the new SAT being rolled out this month. The phone’s tiny screen forces students to resort to scrap paper to solve geometry problems. Also, the phone’s “drill and kill” nature can lull students and before they know it, they’re mindlessly pressing random buttons instead of coming up with the right answers, says Robin Raskin of the Princeton Review, a test-prep company that partners with Washburn’s company, VOCEL, in marketing a cell phone application.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, criticizes this study aid as a jazzed-up novelty. “The format doesn’t work like this on the real SAT. It’s not as if the phone rings you, then feeds you one question at a time. It’s just an opportunity for someone to make a buck, if not also a waste of time.”

Since minority students often lag behind their White peers in access to technology, what do the cell phone offerings portend for them? Some call the cell phone products a democratizing equalizer that is much more affordable than live SAT courses at $1,000, or even study guides at $30. Others say it merely increases the gap between the haves and have-nots. Even a few dollars’ expense “is nothing for a wealthy family, but significant for a low-income family,” Schaeffer says.

Regardless, using cell phones to study for the SAT isn’t nearly as popular as phone add-ons such as cameras, text messaging and video games. U.S. Cellular, which has 4.8 million subscribers nationally, has offered SAT-related software for about a year. Saleswise, it remains in the bottom half of its applications, officials say. Most companies customarily don’t release subscription data on such services, but published reports say VOCEL, which rolled out its SAT review program last fall, picked up 600 subscribers by December.

Still, officials stand by these programs. “It offers something unique of real value,” says John Cregier, U.S. Cellular’s senior director of product development and management.

In fact, it’s likely that more wireless carriers will begin offering SAT prep programs later this year, plus similar study aids for standardized tests such as the GMAT, LSAT and GRE. SAT review programs might also become available for gaming systems or the wildly popular iPod music players. The odds of a college professor making class lecture notes cell phone-friendly might not run high, though.

And Washburn’s son? “He loves studying for the SAT this way,” Washburn says. “He’s answering all day. I don’t know if there could be any substitute for his phone.”

Related Links

The Princeton Review, a test prep company: 

The College Board, which administers the SAT exam:

FairTest, The National Center for Fair and Open Testing:

A publisher of the SAT application for cell phones: 

U.S. Cellular, one of the wireless carriers offering SAT prep programs:

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