The staff of the Federal Trade Commission yesterday reported, with some qualification, that coaching, or "cram" courses can help students achieve somewhat higher scores on standardized tests, like those used for admission to college.
In a long-awaited report, the FTC's Bureau of Competition said that a certain class of students described as "underachievers" might be helped enough by coaching to improve their Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT, or college board exam) scores by an average of 25 points on both the verbal and mathematical portions of that exam.
The 25 points is on a scale of 200 to 800 points.
The report of the FTC staff sparked an immediate response from an attorney for the National Education Association who formerly worked for the FTC Boston Office, and supervised the original study on which the staff findings were based.
The attorney, Arthur Levine, attended the FTC press conference announcing the findings, and disputed the conclusions reached by his former colleagues. He said that his analysis led to the conclusion that coaching schools have more of an effect on ultimate scores.
The issue has stirred considerable controversy because of the importance of standardized tests in college admissions procedures. The testing industry claims that cramming has little effects on the outcome of their exams, which they see as evaluations of aptitude as much as knowledge.
Levine's original report, which included significant new data comparing the scores of students before and after they took certain coaching courses, was completed last September. Since that time he has tried to force the FTC to make his study and analysis public.
But in releasing much of his original study yesterday, the FTC said that while Levine's data was extremely significant, even groundbreaking, his methodology in reaching conclusions "is seriously flawed." Levine had concluded that coaching courses had a more significant effect on raising scores than the commission staff was willing to admit.
Further, the commission said its study was essentially limited to only two of the dozens of coaching schools in the $10 million dollar coaching industry.
According to Al Kramer, who heads the FTC Bureau of Competition, the Boson study was seen as "an important beginning and an important first steps," but he emphasized that more study needed to be done.
"We hope," he said, that the study would form the basis "for further debate and discussion of the issue." He added that the FTC was continuing its investigation into the claims of various coaching schools, saying the agency is "concerned about unsubstantiated claims."
Of the two schools cited in the study, Kramer said only one, Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Centers, Ltd., appeared to help students raise their SAT scores. That school charges about $250 for 40 hours of classroom study and unlimited use of taped lessons at several locations across the country.
Kramer said the second school, Test Preparation Center Inc., of New York, which charged $75 for about 24 hours of classroom lessons, did not appear to raise scores.
Kramer said the findings were limited to "underachievers" because of the statistical makeup of the study, which concentrated on schools that attracted such students. They are defined as underachievers because they originally scored below what their gradepoint averages and scholastic history would indicate they should score on standard tests.
In a seperate press conference after the FTC announcement, Robert Kingston, president of the College Entrance Examination Board, said "we need to know much more about those few individuals who do seem to be helped, including what motivates them and what kind of help they need."
The board contends the SATs are essentially coach-proof.
The Educational Testing Service, which administers the SATs, agreed with the FTC staff that the original Boston, study was flawed and added, in a statement, that "ETS is convinced that there are basic defects in the research that have distorted the results."