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Bored With Studying for the SAT? Now There's a Phone App

Thousands of high school students across the country racked their brains on Saturday striving for the perfect SAT score. Many will take it again with hopes of boosting their score. To up their chances, some will sign up for classes, buy prep books, or go online to practice.

Now, there's an app for your mobile phones and or iPad to run through practice questions and get test-taking tips. Watermelon Express has created a new app that students can use on the go for $24.99.

Guess it was just a matter of time before test prep moved to the mobile-device market. Many new services popped up online, including free ones, such as Number2.com. Students can also turn to the College Board's practice page, which has recently been updated to be more user-friendly.

As I wrote about last month, the test-prep industry is exploding in step with students' and parents' anxiety about college admissions. Yet research is unclear about the real value of commercial services. So, it's buyer beware when it comes to investing in test-prep services.

There are two leverage points that vendors use to distinguish themselves when it comes to test-prep, said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Arlington, Va. The first is the "how to" of test prep. Companies tend to either take the approach of offering lots of relevant content, in the form of practice tests, "actual" questions, and other content that mirrors the content of the tests, or they offer strategies to improving test scores. The Princeton Review has, to a large extent, made its reputation on "beating" the test, essentially finding ways to succeed that are not necessarily related to the content of the tests, Hawkins said.

The second leverage point focuses on the delivery mechanism. Test-prep services were traditionally offered either on paper (books) or in classrooms or other one-on-one settings. Both of these formats used the Internet as a platform over the past decade, adding a second dimension to each. Watermelon Express is one such product that offers what the traditional paper products would have offered, just in a different platform, said Hawkins.

"From a consumer's perspective, the low-cost of the product tends to minimize the need for extensive research into whether the product is 'effective,' " said Hawkins. "I don't know how many consumers spend lots of time before choosing a test-prep book, though consumers would be wise to dig into the research on the more expensive one-on-one services."

Hawkins said Watermelon Express will need to prove its effectiveness in some fashion, given the crowded market for test prep and the likelihood that the more long-standing paper providers are all going to be in this market sooner or later, if they aren't already.

Angela Maria Garcia, executive director of the SAT Program for the College Board, which makes the test, said she understands that students often want to familiarize themselves with the SAT format and question types in advance of test day. "The College Board emphasizes that the best way to get ready for the SAT is to do well in school, take challenging courses, study hard, and read as much as possible. While there is no substitute for real learning, there is value in practicing," said Garcia, adding that many of the College Board online resources are free and affordable.


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