While college entrance exams are now optional for some schools, and the status of the tests has flagged amid discussions of bias and limited predictive value, the SAT and ACT are still important elements of the college admissions process. The belief that it's in college-bound kids' best interest to get the highest score they can has resulted in a multibillion-dollar test-prep industry that more than doubled in size between 1998 and 2012. When the SAT changes in January 2016 (it's going back to two sections and 1,600 points, among other revisions), there's sure to be extra demand to be on top of the new test.
The options for help to practice and review questions range from free or cheap self-serve guides to group classes to pricey private tutors, but the results are inconsistent—studies by the National Association of College Admission Counseling show that the average SAT score gain through test prep is about 30 points across the math and reading sections. That's why Testive, a relative newcomer to the crowded space, is using technology to affordably address the core problem of low test prep ROI: motivation.
"We live in an era where students have better access to freely available information all the time," says Tom Rose, cofounder and CEO of the Boston-based company, which was a member of the Techstars Boston class of 2012 and just finished a $2.2 million funding round in July. "Many students still are failing to meet their education goals, because information does not equal education. There's a missing ingredient, which is difficult. You have to stick with it. You have to try really hard in order to succeed. There are some students who can supply that on their own, but the majority cannot. The best tool that we have today to provide that is one-on-one tutoring, but unfortunately, that is the most expensive. We built Testive to address that problem." According to the company's published results, Testive students improve an average of 150 points on the current 2,400-point SAT.
College entrance test prep is what Rose calls "high importance, low urgency. Add it to list of things that humans are generally bad at." The problem, says Rose, is not that taking practice tests and studying problem content areas doesn’t help, but that kids don't do the work because there's little immediate, incremental incentive, and it's piled on top of an already full load of classwork and activities (author's note: I was an SAT tutor and prep class teacher for several years, and assignment completion was abysmal at every student level).
To optimize motivation, Testive uses a combination of machine and man. Students access practice tests and content drills online that include instant feedback and video explanations of concepts and solutions for incorrect answers. But the real tech twist is in a proprietary algorithm that adapts to student skill level to focus learning and reduce practice time, itself a motivation enemy.
"The algorithm keeps students focused on their weakest content areas, as well as content that is at the exact right difficulty level for them," says Rose. "It triples the learning speed that you'd experience if you were just blindly running through a book, for example. Say there are 54 questions on the Math SAT. If you sit a student down for that test, the SAT generates a predicted score for them with a confidence interval of plus or minus 50 points. A student answering questions at Testive, we can generate an equivalently accurate prediction of their SAT score with only 14 questions. The SATs are used for assessment. Testive is used for pedagogy. We're using it to help people learn faster."
Anyone can access Testive's software for free, which the company enabled last year to compete with the College Board's official free preparation system in partnership with Khan Academy that launched this past June. Much of the self-serve content on the two systems is similar, and in fact Rose says that Testive uses some of Khan's subject content. The difference, says Rose, is in the paid part of Testive's service—a personal coach who, for $299 to $399 per month (versus a thousand or much higher for courses or tutors), provides ongoing accountability checks and a 30-minute video chat per week.
"Because students set their goals and do their work on our software, we are able to collect a tremendous amount of data about student habits and student preferences and student goals," says Rose. "We can feed that data back to coaches, which allows the coaches to make really powerful changes to students' lives in a very short period of time." Through a queue system on the back end, coaches monitor assignments and deadlines throughout the week, and send text messages to congratulate and encourage students for their completion or check on anything missed. Rose says Testive tracks the percentage of work that students complete out of the amount of work that they set as a goal, and that the company is currently operating at 85%.
In the video chat sessions, says Rose, Testive coaches also spend their time differently than a teacher or tutor would. In those situations, work is usually done in a book that a tutor will usually review for wrong answers and go over concepts. "We have a belief that that's a really bad use of human time," says Rose. "Practically speaking, Testive students get 100% of their content and knowledge from the software. When they meet with the coach, what they talk about is human behavioral things, their performance level, what their goals should be for the week, what changes need to be made. That all gets fed into the software, which keeps track of what's done, and then shifts it over to the coach, who checks on the student's progress every day."
Rose says that beyond test prep, his company envisions new categories of motivation-based tools for multiple areas of work and life. "The thing that we do really well is we deliver motivation at very reduced cost," he says. "There's a lot of different places in society where people could benefit from this, including diet, exercise, investing, learning new languages, and learning in general. Our specialty is generating systems that people can subscribe to and help create a system of urgency where none exists, so they can succeed in completing tasks."
In fact, he says, Testive has similar internal systems to help them get their work done. "I'm the CEO and it's my job to raise the money," he says. "It has to be done, but it doesn't have to done today. We actually built a little Testive app around fundraising, and we operate in pairs and I have a coach. I have a certain number of activities that I'm supposed to do each day, and my job is to execute and my coach's job is to follow up. We even have a whole system to keep coaches on top of their student queues for sending intervention messages. Each of our coaches has a coach. It's turtles all the way down."