Special cram courses for students taking standardized college entrance exams apparently do help raise test scores, according to the preliminary results of a Federal Trade Commission investigation.
Sources close to the FTC investigation say the controversial findings, which have not been made public, are still under review by the commission. The commission has had the results of the investigations for the past five months.
If the FTC ultimately finds the courses can result in improved scores, it could rock the standardized testing industry, which has claimed that the 17 million tests it administers annually reflect knowledge accumulated over a lifetime, and thus cannot be distorted by last-minute cramming.
FTC sources say the study results are on the desk of Aflred Kramer, head of the commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection. They said Kramer's staff is in the process of developing recommendations to accompany its presentation to the full commission.
Members of the cram-course industry, which takes in an estimated $60 milliom a year to coach students for such standardized exams as the Schoolastic Aptitude Tests (SATs), law boards, and others, have long alleged that they can help raise a student's score significantly with coaching.
The issue is a heated one, since standardized tests have long been a significant factor in whether a student is accepted or rejected for admission from an institution of higher learning.
Many consumer and educational groups have long expressed doubts about the ability of standardized tests to reflect the true capabilities of a student.
More than two years ago the Boston office of the FTC began investigating the claims made by the various coaching schools, particularly with respect to the SATs and college admissions.
First, the agency subopenaed the records of students who attended the coaching schools. Then the FTC subpoenaed the computer records of the Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, N.J., company with the lion's share of the standardized testing market. The records showed the names of students, pertinent facts and their scores.
When FTC probers began to match the two lists, they saw that students who took the study courses appeared to raise their scores; i.e., that the coaching did have an effect on scores.
After submitting those preliminary findings to FTC headquarters in Washington last September, Boston FTC investigator Arthur Levine, who ran the probe, resigned.
It was at that time that the FTC in Washington began to "reevaluate" Levine's analysis. He said is to be concerned about the long delay in presenting his findings to the public, but refused to discuss the case with reporters.
It is known, from FTC sources, that Levine presented several alternative recommendations in his report, ranging from issuing standards for the coaching industry, to a full-scale formal investigation of the prestigious Educational Testing Service.
Levine and the National Education Association have filed Fredom of Information Act requests with the commission in an attempt to find out what analysis the FTC has done with respect to his data, and to see any additional data obtained by the FTC. The NEA alleges that the FTC is suppressing the study.
Stanley H. Kaplan runs the largest chain of coaching schools, with about 80 study centers in 40 cities. He has seen his business more than quadruple since 19709
"I agree with ETS that cram courses do not help," he said in an interview. "But if you coach a student over a long period of time, you are contributing toward his development, and you can make a difference on how he does in a test. It is part of the learning process."
Part of the controversy over standardized tests stems from groups claiming that the tests than become yet another form or making the best education available only to the rich, since only some students can afford coaching.
Many students, the consumer education groups contend, find it hard to affrod the $225 to $600 a cram course for the law boards might costs, yet virtually all law school graduates take such courses before their bar exams.
For its part, ETS claims in a press release that it, and its advisory College Entrance Examination Board have a "responsibility to students and the entire educational community that [we] serve to provide reliable guidance on whether drilling or last-minute cramming will yield signicant score gains on the SAT."
"On the basis of available evidence," the release goes on to say, "[We] have advised students that these [coaching] methods will not [raise scores significantly]...We do not believe it is in the public interest to encourage students to resort to often costly commercial coaching courses that may offer them no significant educatiobal or other benefit."
In a recent survey of college adminission directros by Gehrun Associates, University relations counselors, there was almost universal agreement that the long term academic more important than a one or two-day standardized test.
"However," survey administrator Richard Friedman said, "there is also a strong concensus ... SAT (and other) test scores are valid indicators of future college success."