The test prep industry is massive -- multi-billion dollar massive. That's no surprise, considering the significance we place on testing. Say what you want about SATs and GREs and MCATs failing to represent a student's skills or knowledge. Say what you want about schools looking at other factors when deciding who to accept. Tests still matter. And parents and schools spend a lot of money in order to prepare students to do well on them.

I'm passionately ambivalent about testing. Let me explain:

I think we focus solely on standardized testing as a measurement of student achievement (and by extension, teacher performance) at great risk. What gets taught, how it gets taught, how students are asked to demonstrate what they've learned -- these are all easily skewed when what matters most is testing.

I think accountability and assessment does matter. Somehow. I don't think standardized testing is the right way (or the only way) to measure. But even if there are assessments and measurements to be had here, I don't think that what we can glean from testing is actually used for any student's benefit. So you scored in the 70th percentile in fourth grade English. Oftentimes, by the time the scores are received, you're in fifth grade.

That's probably why the tests that are used as part of college admissions are more closely scrutinized. You get your score. You study. You try to improve. You retake the test.

Despite some of my grave skepticism about testing, I'm still pretty interested in test prep startups. They are going up against real giants here -- Kaplan and Princeton Review, for starters. It's a big market, no doubt, with big opportunities. (In other words, parents pay a lot of money for these sorts of services.) But that's less interesting to me than the different approaches that they're taking. I think many of these startups are approaching teaching, learning, analytics and assessment in some really interesting ways.

So as (or if) we critique standardized testing, I don't know that we should throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak.

I'm painting with some pretty broad brushstrokes here, I realize (feel free to take it up with me in comments!). But here are some things I'm watching:

Adaptive Learning

When the testing industry labels you "the Antichrist," well, you can pretty much guarantee I'll be your fan. That Antichrist is Jose Ferreira, the founder and CEO of Knewton, who was famously broke the code for how Educational Testing Services generates and delivers questions to students. Knewton still relies heavily on algorithms and computer analysis, and just as standardized tests are moving to ask the student the "best" question based on what they know (or don't), Knewton helps students prepare by continually presenting them with content that is completely personalized to the individual student.

Social Learning

Grockit is also deeply immersed in data and algorithms that are analyzing students' knowledge and performance. But Grockit doesn't just match students with the right content. It's also working on ways to pair students for peer-to-peer study and to match students with the right sort of instruction/instructor. Grockit isn't simply devising an algorithm for student versus computerized test. But it's using the computer-mediated environment to measure and then enhance social learning as well.

Mobile Flashcards

I had a chance last week to talk to Ashish Rangnekar, the co-founder of Watermelon Express. Unlike Grockit and Knewton, Watermelon Express isn't approaching test-prep through analytics. And the company isn't building its own educational content (it just announced that it's licensed its app to McGraw-Hill Professional and Cengage Learning Professional, who among others, provide the content). What Watermelon Express provides is affordable and mobile access to test prep. Rather than lugging around your massive GMAT study guide, you can quiz yourself via your iPhone.

Mobile Whiteboards

Keep an eye on the folks at Easel Learning, who have recently licensed their mobile whiteboard app to the Princeton Review and who were featured in a Techcrunch TV spot this week. Test prep isn't the focus of the New York-based startup. Instead, they're building ShowMe, an iPad app that will let anyone "flip the classroom."

And that's (sort of) my point. Even if standardized testing -- and the industry and politics surrounding it -- make some of us heave a heavy sigh, I think there are some interesting innovations among the startups in the sector, ones that definitely have implications outside the high-stakes testing environment.

So yes, I would like to unhook "high stakes" and "standardized" from "testing." I would like to support other measurements, other demonstrations, other assessments for our students. But I'm still pretty interested in the startups in the testing space. And I can't help but wonder if the willingness for parents to dump big bucks into this sector (for better for worse) might mean that some of these startups are amassing some pretty interesting data about how students learn.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

Back to Archives