For Some Parents, It's Never Too Early for S.A.T. Prep
New York Times
December 20, 2004


Every so often, a toy that reflects a national obsession makes its way into the marketplace. Seventy years ago, toymakers rushed out with the Dionne quintuplets in doll form. In the early 1960's, with the nation at war, there was G.I. Joe.

This year's example is the Time Tracker, a device whose purpose is to help children improve their performances on the standardized tests that have become unavoidable in education. Recommended ages: 4 and up.

Shaped like a colorful peppermill, with a digital readout panel, lights that suggest a traffic intersection and an electronic male voice that booms "Begin" and "Time's up," the Time Tracker, which sells for a list price of $34.95, has turned into a surprise hit of the holiday season, according to some toy sellers. By using the tracker during playtime, homework or any other activity, children are supposed to develop a sense of passing time - 20 minutes, half an hour, an hour - that translates into better management during tests. Siren sounds indicate when a certain period has gone by, and the lights switch from green to yellow to red to demonstrate how close the child is to the end of the allotted time.

The Time Tracker became available in February and is being sold at scores of retailers and several nationally distributed toy catalogs, including Young Explorers, Leaps and Bounds, and Imagine the Challenge. The manufacturer, Learning Resources, would not divulge precise sales figures, but a spokeswoman, Lana J. Simon, said that thousands had been sold, adding that sales had been "30 percent over what we forecasted for the year" and that the company had "had to reorder the product multiple times to meet the demand." The Time Tracker has become the top-selling toy for the company, which is based in Vernon Hills, Ill., she said.

"It's obviously not the type of thing kids would want for themselves," said Andrea Galinski, product development manager at Chelsea & Scott, a Lake Bluff, Ill., company that owns Leaps and Bounds. But, she added, "We've had a very positive response from parents."

Standardized tests, which were once largely confined to college entrance exams like the S.A.T., have become integral parts of primary education and sources of stress for parents of younger children, who often worry that low scores will penalize their offspring early in life. Federal laws and state-mandated testing at various grade levels have increased the importance of such tests. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing estimates that testing has more than doubled since the federal No Child Left Behind law was enacted nearly three years ago, according to Robert A. Schaeffer, public education director for the center.

"I've come across a tremendous proliferation of everything else to help people do better on tests, but never these things," said Martin Carnoy, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University, referring to the Time Tracker. Such toys, he says, are likely to be bought by parents who want to give their children an edge in the testing that begins in some school systems in the third grade or even earlier.

"Lower-middle-class parents are concerned about their school quality and their children's grades," Professor Carnoy said. "The upper middle class is less concerned about the quality of the school than about the performance of their own kids on these make-or-break tests."

Standardized tests have prevailed despite critics who say teachers are being required to abandon more interesting lesson plans in favor of teaching to the test requirements. Others argue that testing offers only a limited measure of performance and potential.

But Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said he saw the emergence of the Time Tracker as a positive development "Parents in general are taking achievement and tests more seriously than they did in the past," he said, "and toy manufacturers are trying to fill that niche."

But Joseph J. Pedulla, the director of the Center for the Study of Testing, Education and Educational Policy at the Peter and Carolyn Lynch School of Education, at Boston College, wondered: "Whatever happened to the egg timer? If they can sell it, more power to them."

Of course, the Time Tracker could have applications other than testing. Clarisse Cowdery, senior buyer for the Young Explorers catalog, which is based in Chelmsford, Mass., said that while the catalog emphasizes the toy's helpfulness on tests ("Perfect for homework assignments and test practice," the copy says), it can be used in other ways as well - for piano practice, say, or for setting limits on TV watching. "You could even use it as a timeout clock," she said.

Still, test-taking seems to be the reason it sells. Ms. Cowdery, who described herself as a former elementary school teacher, said, "People who have kids now find that there are standardized tests in third grade and sixth grade and all along." She went on: "Not every kid does it well. The more you get them accustomed to it, the better off they will be."

There are those who see the Time Tracker as an ominous testament to priorities gone awry. Mr. Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing said he had not come across the toy himself, but that its appearance highlighted the way "test-taking has permeated youth culture because of the prominence of high-stakes testing throughout education." Toys and other aids for test-taking have turned into "almost an arms-race culture," he added, with parents reaching for every possible tool to be sure their children get the highest scores they can.

Professor Carnoy said the economics of supply and demand when it comes to college admissions and employment fueled the passion for testing and for gadgets that may give children extra help. "This is obviously playing to a tremendous anxiety," he said. "And it's happening because the payoff of going to university has risen very rapidly since the early 1980's."

Test scores have become "a cheap way of making a decision," he said, when it comes to the early winnowing of candidates for college admission.

It is no wonder that toys have emerged that promise, however tacitly, to help.

"It's the modern-day equivalent of hanging a mobile above a baby's crib or playing Beethoven for the baby - those were supposed to stimulate creative thinking," Mr. Schaeffer said. "Now the emphasis is on test-taking."