In the world of college test prep materials and tools, Don Phan considers himself a connoisseur.
As a high school student in Louisiana, he spent hour upon hour practicing SAT questions through the Princeton Review and official practice exams. His efforts paid off: he boosted his SAT score by more than 350 points and landed a spot in Yale’s class of 2006. Phan is now a university guidance counselor at the European International School in Ho Chi Minh City, as well as a test prep tutor who prepares students for the ACT, SAT, SSAT, GRE and GMAT. And he knows the pros and cons of every test prep platform out there; he has even written questions for some of them. So it is with some authority that he sings the praises of adaptive test prep technology. “The game has totally changed since I was in high school,” he says. “There are just so many more materials available. If you use technology, you’re getting a good bang for your buck.”
The game has totally changed since I was in high school.
For the past year, Phan has been using the adaptive test prep platform by The Edge, a Hong Kong-based test preparation, admissions consulting, and academic tutoring business that is expanding into the US. Developed with technology by Realizeit, The Edge Prep’s AI-powered engine continually assesses students’ strengths and weaknesses as they move through a series of exam questions for the SAT, ACT or SSAT. (The IELTS exam is coming soon.) If a student stumbles on, say, a question involving proper comma placement, the platform will drill that skill until the student demonstrates a good grasp of the concept. There are hundreds of different skills and assessment criteria that are assessed by the system.
Because an adaptive platform has students focus on areas in which they are weak but not ones in which they are already proficient, students have more time to pursue activities they enjoy—like ballet or music or sports—says Chris Fuller, a project manager at The Edge. In the year since it launched, the platform has cut in half the time students have to study to obtain the same results, according to company metrics. With students who start at 1000 or 1100 points on the SAT, says Fuller, “we’ve noticed improvements of around 200 to 250 points in somewhere between 15 and 20 hours. Our brick and mortar courses usually get a student about 150 to 200 points in about 25 to 30 hours of time.”
That time-saving feature is one reason Jonas Lind, a university guidance counselor at the International Department of Chengdu Shude High School in China, has been recommending The Edge Prep to students for the last six months. “What strikes a chord with me is that the students will tell you they want flexibility; they want time to do other things because they're so stressed out with school and activities,” he says. “But the other thing I really like is that the students say they're studying hard in the test prep process because everything is directly relevant to them.”
Jonas Lind and his student. Source: Jonas Lind.
Another advantage to adaptive test prep: For kids whose parents can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on a top-level private SAT tutor, it can be a great equalizer.
“The program gets to know you,” Lind adds. “It learns what you're good at, what you're bad at, and what it takes you time to do. Then it notices that next time and gives you a bit more of that. It’s exactly what we needed at our high school. I have students who tell me, ‘I'm not learning enough from my SAT class because we're spending so much time on this one aspect of the SAT test right now in class, but that's not the hard part for me. What I need help with is this other part.’”
Another advantage to adaptive test prep: For kids whose parents can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on a top-level private SAT tutor, the platform can be a great equalizer. “A good human tutor can figure out, ‘this student is weak or slow with y=mx+b problems,’ or ‘this student has an issue with pronoun agreement or subject-verb agreement.’ But those people are expensive!”
Even when used in conjunction with a human tutor, adaptive technology can slash time and money spent on test prep. When Phan tutors his Asia-based students who hope to attend college in the US, he has them follow The Edge Prep curriculum and take the eight official SAT tests on Khan Academy. After 25 hours of work on the software and 10 hours of one-on-one time with Phan, one student's score jumped from 1450 to better than 1500, putting her in the top one percent of students globally, says Phan. “When you already have a good score like 1450, it’s a lot harder to get that extra bump because at that point, those questions are just hard.”
The Edge Prep also has a backend interface that allows teachers, administrators and parents to monitor student progress—learning how long they’ve practiced, what questions they’ve answered and with what level of accuracy. Administrators can see if teachers are logged in and how students are performing as a collective. It saves teachers time by providing analytics on student performance, and it allows them to assign homework to individuals while also monitoring large groups of students. The big assist for teachers, says Phan, is being able to check how frequently students are using the program. “If you need Suzy to do four hours of drills, you can actually go in and see, ‘has Suzy even logged in for four hours?’"
. . . after a few lessons, his apprehension about making a real connection with his online students vanished.
Phan, who rides his motorbike all over Ho Chi Minh City to meet with his students—and is usually gritty and reeking of gasoline by the time he arrives—has also embraced a sister service, The Edge Tutors, which matches students and tutors for online tutoring sessions. Now Phan can reach students outside of Ho Chi Minh City, and students who don’t live in the top tier cities in Asia can have access to top-level tutors like him.
Phan admits he was skeptical of the online platform at first, “because I'm so used to being in a room with students, seeing them face-to-face.” But after a few lessons, his apprehension about making a real connection with his online students vanished. “There are students I’ve been online with for over 30 hours with test prep, personal statement editing, and interview prep,” he says. “I know them really well even though I've never seen them face-to-face in real life.”
Phan has found that there is little downside and a lot of upside to teaching online. “If anything, I am fresher for my students because I haven’t had to commute!”