Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 11, NO. 4 / APRIL 1985 / PAGE 86

SAT packages - an update. (evaluation) Betsy Staples.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test: the great equalizer among college-oriented people throughout the USA. I remember taking it, and you probably remember taking it. But back when I took it--and maybe when you took it-common wisdom had it that you could not prepare for the SAT, so very few people bothered to try. Your parents probably bought you a book of sample questions, and you took one or two of the sample tests. But since everyone knew that the SAT was designed to measure the effectiveness of 11 to 12 years of education, you didn't waste much time with it. "A good night's sleep the night before" was held by teachers and guidance counselors to be the best preparation.

How many times have changed. Students who take the test this year can trust tutors, cram courses and computer software to bolster their confidence and improve their scores. And lest any doubt remain as to the efficacy of these aids, George Hopmeier, an educational consultant in Milton, FL, recently found a difference of 94 points on scores between students who used the Harcourt Brace Jovanich SAT preparation program (the only program he tested) and those who had no supplementary preparation.

The manufacturers of the four packages we discuss here all have "big names"--Digital Research; Scott, Foresman; Harcourt Brace Jovanich; and Barron's. But as we have seen before, a big name does not guarantee a worthwhile product; sometimes it just means that a worthless product makes a louder noise when it flops.

Space does not permit a detailed description of each package, so I will begin by describing the features that the packages have in common, mention salient characteristics of each, and then list and rank the products and their features in a chart, which I hope will answer any remaining questions. Similarities

All of the packages have extensive manuals, which offer, in addition to basic instructions for loading the programs, sample questions, tutorial material, and strategies for taking the test. All of the manuals are professionally and attractively prepared.

All of the programs are easy to load and perform reliably throughout the evaluation period. We received one defective disk, which, after a frustrating call to Digital Research's technical support staff, was cheerfully and promptly replaced by Owlcat International, developers of the program.

Because the programs are unusually data-intensive, all of them spend a great deal of time accessing the disk. The worst offender on this count is the Barron's package which spins the disk for about eight seconds between questions and at least as long when switching among menus. This package has as many "please be patient" messages as some programs have variations on the "congratulations" theme. After an hour or so of watching your disk drive wear out, you begin to lose patience with even the "please be patient" messages.

The learning mode is another common feature. At the start of a section, or answering a question, you can choose to have the answers to the questions explained. Most of the explanations are clear and complete--especially if you have studied the tutorial information in the manual. The one situation in which this procedure breaks down is in the Test of Standard Written English when the answer tells you that a sentence is correct as presented. This is fine if you agree that the example contains no errors. If, however, you thought something was incorrect, there is no way to find out why you were wrong.

The alternative to learning mode is test mode, in which your answers are recorded and checked just as they would be on an actual exam. At the end of the test section, whether it be an entire simulated SAT or a short practice session, your score is calculated and rendered as an SAT equivalent. Barron's offers a detailed analysis of your score, listing the various skill areas (analogies--opposites, cause and effect, etc.) and the percent of each that you answered correctly. HBJ goes a step further, assigning a study priority to each topic.

None of the programs has what I consider to be an abundance of sample questions. A limited number of questions test each skill area, so it is possible to memorize the correct answers. This could certainly be considered a drawback. On the other hand, if you subscribe to the theory that underlies the audiolingual method of foreign language teaching, you may believe that memorizing a correct sentence is tantamount to mastering the grammatical point it illustrates--and that could be considered a benefit.

Finally, all of the packages contain mistakes. The Worst Offender Award in this category goes to the Owlcat package for lines which repeatedly "intesect" in the geometry section and the non-word "prophesizing" in the verbal drill section. All of the packages included at least one verbal question, the answer to which I was unable to accept even after a trip to the dictionary.

Now, let's look at each package briefly to find out what distinguishes each from the others. The Perfect Score

This somewhat pretentiously titled package from Mindscape, a division of Scott, Foresman, is the least expensive of the programs we tested. Written in MicroMotion Forth-79, it is also fairly efficient in terms of disk access. In learning mode, the explanation for the previous question remains on the screen while the next question is retrieved, so there is actually something worthwhile to look at while you are waiting, and you don't feel as though you are wasting time as you do with some of the other programs.

The Perfect Score manual concentrates on test taking strategies rather than sample questions. It discusses the types of questions you are likely to see on the test and suggests how to handle them. It also includes short vocabulary and math review sections, the text passages for the reading comprehension questions, and the figures for the math questions.

To select an answer, you move an arrow on the screen with the arrow keys on the keyboard. This makes it difficult to select an incorrect answer by mistake and almost forces you to read all of the choices--a good habit to get into.

This package falls short in the recordkeeping department. It asks for your name at the beginning of each session, but never uses it. Nor does it record your scores on the timed test or the practice sessions; once you press the spacebar to go on, your score is but a memory. Only the score of the timed test is converted to an SAT equivalent. Owlcat

We tested the 60-hour Owlcat SAT Preparatory Course from Digital Research. An abridged 15-hour course, which Owlcat says offers the same documentation but fewer disks, is also available.

Unique features of the Owlcat package are Buddy Study and extensive onscreen tutorial material. Each disk offers the option of Buddy Study, a game in which two players compete by answering SAT-type questions as quickly as possible. Before you play Buddy Study, you might want to choose Manual, an option that provides an on-screen tutorial on the material tested in the Lessons and Buddy Study sections of that disk. The Manual for the math disks includes appropriate on-screen graphics. When using the verbal disks, you have the additional option of asking for help from a dictionary before answering the question in learning mode.

The documentation of the Owlcat package is its strong point. I found it both helpful and attractive. The tutorial material is clear, concise, and complete; examples abound, and the explanations are among the best I have seen anywhere. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, I admired the large format loose-leaf pages printed on heavy glossy stock, and as an aelurophile, I found the illustrations of cats that decorate the pages amusing.

On the negative side, I always downgrade programs that do not allow the user to change an answer before entering it. Owlcat gives you only one chance to type the correct letter; if your finger slips off the E and hits the D, that's too bad, your answer is recorded as D. Even the College Board lets you change your answers--as long as you remember to bring along a good eraser. And then there are those careless typos (on the disk only)--what a shame that they detract from the quality of an otherwise fine package.

A final bit of bad news concerns the Diagnostic disk, which includes a sample test and analyzes your scores. This disk can be used only once. If you want to take the test again or administer it to more than one student, you must make back up copies and use a new one for each test. Even worse news is that you find out about this feature by trying to take the test a second time and having the program tell you "Sorry, you have already taken this test." I was unable to find even a hint of it in the documentation. The good news is that you can make backup copies of this and all other disks in the package.

If the documentation of the 15-hour version is truly identical to the longer version I evaluated, the shorter version is probably a better buy.

Barron's has been helping high school students prepare for the SAT for decades. In fact, the copyright dates on How To Prepare for College Entrance Examinations stretch all the way back to 1954 (it was probably the book your parents bought you). The problem is that Barron's transition to the computer age has not been a smooth one.

The package itself, a 7.5 lb. behemoth, weighs more than some computers --a fact attributable to the voluminous documentation. Actually, documentation is not quite the right word to describe the books that come with the program. One of them is a small User's Manual that describes the program and provides instructions for use. That is "documentation." The remaining 1300 + pages comprise Barron's Verbal Workbook, Math Workbook, and How to Prepare. All three are replete with sample test, explanations, and discussions of test taking strategy. They are worth every penny of the $20.85 it would cost to buy them sans software in your local bookstore.

"Where, then, does the software come in," you ask. And well you might ask; I certainly did. A bit of investigation reveals that in this case the software serves primarily as an electronic answer sheet. You read the questions from the books and type in A, B, C, D, E, or P ( for pass). In Question (learning mode), the computer gives you a hint and a second chance if your first answer is wrong. A brief explanation follows, whether you made a correct choice or not.

In Test mode, your sophisticated high-tech hardware displays the numbers from 1 to 25. Again, you read the questions in the book and type in the letters that correspond to the correct answers. This time, as in a real test situation, there is no feedback at all. At the end of the test, your answers are displayed again with the correct answers alongside them. If you want an explanation of a given answer, you type its number, and the explanation appears. But it is up to you to spot the wrong answers.

At the end of each sample test, the computer calculates your score and prints or displays an analysis of your skills. It is your responsibility to transfer the analysis of your score to a chart in the back of the User's Manual.

The people at Barron's have mastered the art of writing books to help students prepare for the SAT. They missed the boat entirely when they tried to apply their years of mastery to a new medium. If you like the Barron's approach, buy the books and forget the software. Computer Preparation for the SAT

Harcourt Brace Jovanich is a veteran in a young industry; their Computer Preparation for the SAT has been on the market for three years. Like Barron's, the HBJ packages relies heavily on a book that was apparently not intended to be used with a computer. The book, How to Prepare for the SAT, is a stand-alone course complete with practice tests, tutorial material, explanations, and test taking strategies.

Again, I found both the idea and the practice of answering questions from a book on an electronic answer sheet more than a little distressing. It just doesn't seem to take full advantage of the technology, and balancing the book between various body parts and the minute amounts of empty space sorrounding my computer was tedious. Several times I inadvertently skipped test questions and had to go back when I finally realized that my answers were not where they ought to have been. But, of course, that can happen on the SAT, too.

Based on your scores on the test, the computer will create for you a study plan, assigning high, medium, or low priority to the various topics for which drills are available. In the drills, you are told immediately whether your answer is right or wrong and asked whether or not you want an explanation. The math explanations are better than the verbal ones, some of which seem to stop just a bit short of providing all the information you need to understand the answer.

Responses in the drill section are almost instantaneous; there is no disk access between questions; while using Computer Preparation, I neither feared for the health of my disk drive nor wished I had learned to crochet in college.

The thing that struck me most forcefully about Computer Preparation was that its questions seemed significantly more difficult than the questions in other packages. Not having taken the SAT in many years, I cannot say which of the programs offers questions most similar to those on the test. I can say, however, that of the four reviewed here, the HBJ package offers the hardest and Perfect Score, the easiest questions.

Another unique feature of the HBJ package is the Vocabulary Flashcard disk, which offers 1000 items for drill and practice. A word appears on the screen and you are supposed to "look at the word and think of its definition." You then press the spacebar, and the definition appears below the word. Next, you press W or R to tell the computer whether your guess was right or wrong, so it can continue to quiz you on the ones you don't know. Again, not exactly optimum utilization of the available technology.

All things considered, HBJ seems to have eased into the computer age somewhat more smoothly than Barron's has, but the package is still a far cry from state-of-the-art. A spokeswoman for HBJ told me that an updated package, which will incorporate many of the advances in software design that have occurred during the past three years, is underway. I look forward to reviewing it for you.

Products: Owlcat 60-hour SAT Preparatory Course (computer program)
Owlcat 15-hour SAT Preparatory Course (computer program)
Barron's Computer SAT Study Program (computer program)
Computer Preparation for the SAT (computer program)
The Perfect Score (Computer program)