Monday, December 28, 2009

ACT Advantage: PLAN Test

ACT Inc., is a name synonomous with College preparations. In fact, this year, ACT, Inc. is celebrating their 50th anniversary providing standardized testing services to students, parents and colleges. The ACT of 2010, however, is a great deal more than just a standardized test to add to your college application process. ACT, Inc. currently has a host of opportunities to help students and parents EXPLORE, PLAN and DISCOVER their options for post secondary education.

Earlier this school year I reviewed with the help of my 15 year old son Jonah, the ACT Discover program designed to assist students with discovering a vocation to match their interests, personality and personal goals. Today, Jonah and I took a look at the PLAN test designed for 10th grade students. EXPLORE, PLAN and DISCOVER are components of ACT, Inc.'s ADVANTAGE program available to families through ACT, Inc.'s Homeschool Solutions portion of their website.

The PLAN test administered by many public schools to assess 10th grade college readiness may be purchased by homeschoolers at the ACT, Inc. website, The test
packet sells for $22.95 and includes:

  • Testing booklet titled Sample Test Booklet and Answer Sheet
  • Using Your PLAN Results brochure—a brief overview of score results and the process
  • College Readiness Standards handbook—a handbook that provides ideas for progress in each subject to prepare students for college or the workforce

Jonah and I viewed PLAN as a pre-test for his scheduled ACT test he will take in February as a part of his application process for post-secondary classes at our local University in the fall. Similar to the traditional ACT test, PLAN assesses students in the areas of:

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Reading
  • Science.
According to the ACT Plan website, PLAN will answer the following questions for parents:

Where does my son or daughter stand right now?

The test will evaluate students abilities in the four major subject areas listed above by identifying their strengths and weaknesses.

How can I help my son or daughter advance in the four core subject areas?

An "ideas for progress" section in the College Readiness Standards Booklet provided in the packet offers tips and suggestions to assist students in problem areas over the next two years of high school.

How do I know if my child is on track for college?

The Plan Test will reassure homeschool parents who suffer from that "nagging voice" that keeps asking, "Did I cover enough?" Consider PLAN an opportunity to receive a well deserved pat on the back.

The total testing time for PLAN is just over 2 hours; similar to the traditional ACT test taken for college entrance. Students spend 30 mins. answering 50 questions on the English portion, 40 minutes answering 40 Mathematics questions, 20 minutes answering 25 questions for the Reading portion, and conclude with 25 minutes for the 30 questions of the Science test. Sample test questions can be found at the ACT, Inc. website.

Jonah concluded his test in one sitting. He is very familiar with standardized tests including the ACT since taking it the first time last Spring, and the PSAT this Fall. When I asked him if he thought the test was similar to the ACT of last year, he quickly agreed.

"IT was just a normal test; just like the ACT. It was probably a little bit easier because I think it seemed shorter. I think there are fewer sections too, because on the ACT I think the Reading is split up into two sections and the English is split up into two sections", commented Jonah.

Instructions and answer key sheets are included in the test packet for parents. It took me about a half hour to score Jonah's tests and determine his raw, scale and percentage scores. I thought the directions were thorough, but a bit confusing the first read through. Students fill out a bubble sheet for their answers which I had to read through while scoring and then transfer those results to another answer key sheet to compute the raw and scale scores.

I was thrilled to learn that Jonah is very well prepared for college. His composite score of 23 placed him in the 97% percentile for high school sophomores and well on his way towards his goal of acceptance into the University Post-secondary program for the 2010-2011 school year.

* I received the ACT Advantage PLAN test packet free of charge directly from ACT, Inc., in exchange for this personal review.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Maestro Classics

My childhood was filled with music. Memories of choirs, bands, and private music lessons are ones I treasure as music remains a beautiful source of enjoyment and entertainment for me. Although I didn't homeschool, I credit my grandmother and parents for my early music education and fostering my love of music.

Maestro Classics,, like my parents and grandmother, are committed to helping young children discover the joy and beauty of music. Their "Stories in Music" series of CDs blend storytelling, great music, knowledge of history and composers, and an entertaining introduction to the orchestra and its components. According to the company mission statement, "Maestro Classics guides audiences as they expand their listening horizons and discover the magic that can only be called music".

There are currently 7 stories in the series with two in production. I received Maestro Classics latest release, "The Tortoise and the Hare", for free in exchange for this review. It arrived in high quality packaging covered with delightful illustrations of the story, a pocket to hold the mini story book accompaniment, and a section to hold the CD securely when not in use. The story booklet for "The Tortoise and the Hare" included a diagram of the orchestra with color photographs of the instruments organized in sections like a real orchestra, 2 pages of basic music theory, 2 pages of facts of turtles, tortoises, rabbits and hares, music and lyrics of an original song sung by one of the characters in the production, 4 puzzle pages and biography information of the conductor/composer, producer and narrator. Many good things came in this small package.

The "Tortoise and the Hare" CD retells the classic Aesop fable with a French twist. The Hare understanding he is well ahead in his race against the Tortoise takes time off from racing to visit a French Bistro. The twenty minute narrated story/music performance on the CD is followed by a 3 min. explanation of the story, a second performance of the "Pretzel Vendor of Paris" song, followed by a second opportunity to listen to the musical story performance designed to encourage application of newly acquired musical awareness. The total running time of the CD is approximately 54 minutes.

The "Tortoise and the Hare" was adapted for Maestro Classics by Bonnie Ward Simon, former executive director of the Washington Chamber Symphony and co-creator of the Symphony's successful "Concerts for Young People" series. "The Tortoise and the Hare" is one of the original works premiered by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. for their children's concerts. Simon created "Stories in Music" believing they, "introduce great music and classic stories, and provide the opportunity to develop important listening skills". (Maestro literature)

Every great story in the series has great music to accompany it. Stephen Simon conducted and composed all the music performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra for the CDs. Simon served as music director of the Washington Chamber Symphony and resident chamber orchestra at the Kennedy Center for 25 years, and has guest conducted for symphonies all over the world. He was known as the "Magic Maestro" at the Kennedy Center, and according to his bio "loves music more than anything else in the world.....and believes that every concert should be wonderful entertainment".

The story of "The Tortoise and the Hare" is narrated by Yadu (aka Dr. Konrad Czynski, professor of Humanities at Minnesota State University-Moorhead). Yadu was the original narrator of the series at the Kennedy Center his voice rich and engaging on the CD. The music is performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The "Stories in Music" CDs are available for purchase on Maestro Classics website. They include:

*Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

*Juanita the Spanish Lobster

*Casey at the Bat

*The Sorceror's Apprentice

*Peter and the Wolf

*The Story of Swan Lake

*The Tortoise and the Hare

* A Soldier's Tale and My Name is Handel are currently in production.

All CDs with accompanying mini program book retail for $16.98 on the website. Customers can find local specialty children's stores offering the series through a search engine at Gift sets of storybook and CD are available for $24.99. Those wishing to purchase three or more CDs in the collection can take advantage of a special offer provided by the company of three CDs for $45.00. Look for coupon code MAESTRO45 on the website.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


If you need to re-energize your child's interest in mathematics you might try Mathletics. Toted on their site,, as "America's no. 1 Math website", subscription based Mathletics promises to challenge K-8 math students through the spirit of competition while they learn. As a member of TOS Review Crew I received a free 45 day subscription to Mathletics to use with my 7th grade daughter in exchange for this review.

We began our experience with Mathletics by registering Micah on the site. She created a personalized avatar complete with skin tone, eyes, mouth, hair, clothes, hat and accessories to represent her while on-line. Micah signed up to be a part of Team USA represented with a little US flag icon to the left of her avatar. Mathletics is used by millions of students worldwide.

We discovered Mathletics 7th grade curriculum covered the topics of:

* Decimals
* Number Theory
* Integers
* Addition and Subtraction Facts
* Multiply and Divide Fractions
* Pre-Algebra
* Geometry
* Measurement
* Ratio, Proportion and Percent
* Data, Probability, and Statistics

Micah used Mathletics independently during our testing period. She began each session by choosing a topic to study, then completing 10 practice problems designed to test her skill and ability to solve problems related to the topic. If she completed all ten correctly she was rewarded with a cute little cartoon of a young girl in a pink convertible racing to the center of the screen raising her arms in victory plus a coveted gold bar. Sound effects of cheering accompanied the scene providing a fun way to end a study session.

To enhance the serious aspect of Micah's results, she only needed to scroll down the last screen to view a copy of all practice problems attempted complete with answers. If she happened to miss a problem or two they were marked with an X instead of a check mark. Clicking on the "support" button in the upper right hand corner of each box containing a problem, linked to a new web page with a cartoon character standing in front of a blackboard ready to explain on the board how to solve the problem. At this screen Micah could chose to view additional examples of varying difficulty levels for each of the missed concepts. Incorporating a cartoon visual with concept review kept the program light-hearted, interesting and fun for her.

When Micah answered all 10 of her practice problems correctly requiring no review she clicked back to the menu. The menu page allowed her to view all topics for the 7th grade curriculum and her progress in studying each of them. Since she had just completed one of the sections of Geometry as she showed me how to use Mathletics, it displayed a gold bar with the word "perfect" written across to show all practice problems had been answered correctly. On the menu page I noted some of her previous attempts at other topics were marked with a red bar that said, "great work" instead of the desired gold bar. The red bar designated her need for more practice with the topic before she could answer all 10 questions correctly and earn the "perfect" gold bar.

Micah completed all sections of the Geometry section and chose to take the final test. The test consisted of 16 problems and once completed awarded her the same cheers and cartoon character hurrah. Clicking back to the main menu we noted it then displayed she had completed the entire geometry section and earned another gold bar for her efforts. I liked the fact Mathletics was not concerned with speed as much as accuracy. The curriculum taught to excellence and rewarded Micah accordingly with points, gold bar rewards and certificates.

Mathletics awards certificates for points earned for answering problems correctly. This incentive keeps students working towards a goal even when the math topic proves to be a bit challenging. Once Micah earned 1,000 points she received a bronze certificate. If she earned 5 bronze certificates in a week she would also earn a silver certificate. Four silver certificates within the week awarded her a gold certificate. Micah's two bronze certificates earned during the last week of our review period could be viewed on a specially designed web page called the "Bronze Cafe" and were easily printed for record keeping and encouragement.

When asked her opinion of Mathletics Micah said, "It's fun and easy to get used to. The program was really self-explanatory. I liked that the no. 1 player of the week is ranked and you can be listed on the web page for it. They rank top 100 students and top 50 schools from all over the world; that is also very cool".

Micah took advantage of an additional problem solving section for 7th grade students on the Mathletics website. Problem solving consisted of games for the math minded providing a break from regular curriculum study and competition. Micah played "Mind Twister" similar to a memory matching game with four levels of difficulty. The game challenged players to use logical reasoning to solve puzzles. She earned another gold bar for completing all four levels of Mind Twister; placing her one step closer to the 92 bars needed to complete grade 7 requirements.

Mathletics has a comprehensive Parent Centre accessible only through a parent log in with user name and password. The Parent Centre offers complete student and parent books in PDF format which can be printed one page at a time or in their entirety. Parent books include answers to the student workbooks, assessments and an outcomes or standards section. The workbooks are encouraged by Mathletics to "support on-line content to help children reach that light bulb moment".

A one year subscription to can be purchased for $59.00 on the site. Subscriptions are for one child for the year and cannot be shared. When you consider the quality and content of the site, plus additional workbooks for further study included I believe Mathletics is a good investment especially for students lacking motivation for math. Mathletics offers a 10 day money back guarantee if customers are not completely satisfied.

Mathletics is great for homeschoolers since it encourages independent study while teaching to mastery. Students set their own pace and of course the site is accessible 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week wherever internet access can be found. Mathletics' fresh approach and techie appeal guarantee kids will want to keep pace with their math studies.

Friday, December 11, 2009


Tektoma is a techie kid's dream! Making the most of modern technology, Tektoma, a membership based website founded in 2009 by Tom and Matilda O'Connor, offers "24 hour access to engaging video game tutorials that teach children game programming". The O'Connor's have taught technology to children through camp experiences since 2003, and now offer the world access to their established program at their website, Once members of the site students access a free download of Gamemaker Lite software, step-by-step video tutorials using Gamemaker and private and secure discussion forums to answer student questions and problems during the creation process. Membership to Tektoma's website is $14.95 a month or $140.00 a year, but anyone can test drive the program with a free 14 day trial. Tektoma gave our family a free three month membership to their site in exchange for this review.

Gamemaker allows kids to create video games similar to "old school" games made famous by Atari. Students can choose between a Racing Game, Arcade Game, Platform Game, and Fantasy Adventure Game. When I first looked at the site I was intrigued, but admittedly a bit overwhelmed by the need to download software and understand what tools I needed to get started.

Fortunately, the downloads went smoothly and efficiently since my computer had just been upgraded to Windows XP. According to Tektoma, their program will currently only work with Windows XP or VISTA users. Mac techies will need to wait as a MacIntosh version is under development. With GameMaker software downloaded I called my 12 year old daughter Micah to the computer to set her lose in making a video game.

I thought I had followed the necessary steps to help my "7-17 year old" make their own video game, as stated on the Tektoma website, but as Micah began working through the first tutorial she hit a major road block. She was unable to find the necessary "Sprite" file even though the tutorial explained it simply and directly. After my unsuccessful attempt to solve her problem we asked my professional computer consultant husband for advice. He determined, after about an hour of research, that we needed to switch the Gamemaker to "advanced mode" from its setting of "basic mode" to operate it correctly.

"We knew where the Sprite was because we downloaded the game resources pack. I thought it was on "advanced mode", but for some reason it turned off. Dad found out that we needed to switch it back. It was kind of frustrating for me", said Micah.

Thinking we had solved all of our problems Micah attacked the video game creation process again, only to get stuck within a few minutes. "After I made the game race track and I did what the tutorial told me to do with it I opened it and the race car wasn't there like I placed it. I had no idea how to fix that and I just wanted to quit", said Micah.

"I think Tektoma is a good idea because lots of kids like to play video games and its really cool to know how they are created. I think the tutorial should explain things a little bit more detailed like showing how to solve different problems when you come across them. If I could solve the problem I would try to get through creating the whole game because it was actually kind of fun.", she added.

I would love to recommend Tektoma, but unfortunately we were never able to successfully use this unique product. In all my years of homeschooling I have never seen a similar product designed to help kids make use of technology in a format they love. I love the idea of using educational play in the learning process and creating a video game is just that. However, as a homeschool Mom I always need a user-friendly product when teaching subjects I desperately lack expertise for. Tektoma needs to work a bit to become more user-friendly for the less techie minded in my opinion.

If you are intrigued by Tektoma I highly recommend taking advantage of their FREE 14 Day trial. With Christmas break on the horizon it just might be the perfect inside project to keep kids amused; especially if you have a techie kid dreaming of creating their own video game.