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