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Test Prep Firms and the Laws of Attraction

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Dear Extra Credit:

I think it's fairly certain that high schools sell the names and addresses of their students to test prep firms. We got a steady onslaught of mailed materials [for test preparation] in my daughter's name well before she signed up for the PSAT, SAT or ACT.

Who is pocketing the money from the test prep firms? If students' names are being sold for marketing, they should at least get the money and a chance to opt out. I'm curious about the types of goodies the prep firms are offering schools to get these marketing targets -- reduced prices for on-site test preps, free admission for low-income kids, etc. Is money changing hands? Do the school boards watch this? And if the SAT and ACT companies are selling the names, I don't recall any disclosure or permission asked of the students. Why do they get to sell these names without compensation to those affected?

Margaret Engel

Bethesda

Schools that sell students' names and addresses to test prep firms would not only deeply annoy many of us parents, but as I understand it, would also violate the law. Such information is covered by privacy laws, with the only exception being the military, which Congress has authorized to collect such information for recruiting purposes if a parent does not object.

I asked Carina Wong, spokeswoman for Kaplan Inc., the moneymaking part of The Washington Post Co., how test prep companies such as hers get such a reputation.

She said: "We gather a large amount of our information from students who register on our Web site and come to our live events [SAT practice tests, college admissions workshops] around the country. We also acquire contacts from a number of sources -- data providers, student-oriented Web sites, online retailers, teen and parent publications. The student information we acquire from these parties is widely available to direct marketers, and anyone who chooses to opt out can easily do so. In mailing to these lists, we comply by the strict code of ethics and privacy policy of the Direct Marketing Association, of which we are a member."

Dear Extra Credit:

The school-parent relationships expert [Anne T. Henderson, a senior consultant with the Community Involvement Program at Brown University's Annenberg Institute for School Reform] you quoted in your Sept. 17 article ["Parent-School Conflict Is Lesson on Efficacy," Metro section] nailed it: "One parent complaining is a fruitcake. Two parents are a fruitcake and a friend; five parents will get some attention; 20 parents can be seen as a powerful organization."

The trouble is that every time I try to get something changed for my child, it's the fruitcake syndrome. My older daughter suffered through a bad approach to teaching algebra in eighth grade and struggled in ninth-grade history. The school system ultimately acknowledged these issues and fixed them, after the fact, when the school year was over. Despite concerted efforts, I got nothing done in either case to help my child.

The problem is that most issues that parents face are for their own children, and the school system is all too eager to use the "fruitcake" label.

My suggestion: an ombudsman. This person should report outside the normal chain of command and should have power to cut through red tape and bureaucratic intransigence, and give parents some sense that they were listened to and got a fair hearing without the fruitcake reaction. It wouldn't fix everything, but it would do a lot to lessen alienation and frustration with the schools.

Chuck Bouldin

Arlington

I love the idea. Some districts, such as Montgomery County's, already have officials fulfilling this function in some way.

I would like to hear from parents and officials in school districts in the Washington area that have ombudsmen, and if they have helped in situations such as yours.

Dear Extra Credit:

The cultivation of America's achieving young scholars is critical to ensure this nation's future global competitive position. Evidence indicates that the top 5 percent of students in academics receive more than 50 percent of the PhDs in science, technology, engineering and math. Students of exceptional talent are not developed by chance. Rather, their intellect, uniqueness and curiosity are nourished through hard work, demonstrated excellence in academics and with guidance.

Too often, gifted and talented students are left to fend for themselves in class or they are the leaders for team projects, not to further their intellectual prowess but solely to enhance social skills in teamwork. The myth of elitism increasingly raises its pernicious head. The ugly secret is that most gifted and talented students are falling between the cracks; they are overlooked in enrichment programming, teachers have little or no training in gifted and talented education, and funding for any help to young scholars is being cut.

I am proud of my organization's record of achievement in identifying and motivating future leaders in science and technology and retaining alumni of our summer enrichment program in science, technology, engineering and math careers. How unfortunate it is, however, that NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health do not include the very top performing scholars in any of their targeted and funded program efforts.

Joann DiGennaro

President and co-founder,

Center for Excellence

in Education

Oakton

I do not doubt the sincerity of your comments, but I do dispute their accuracy. Send me data that show that "most gifted and talented students are falling between the cracks" and I will be delighted to put it in this column. As far as I can tell, many of them are getting good teaching and they are proving to be quite successful, not so much because we are teaching them well but because our economic, political and social systems provide so many opportunities for creative people.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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