Your future boss may never ask you what grade you got in Algebra, but that doesn't mean that grades don't matter. Some of the worst academic afflictions can be overcome with early treatment and extra practice. Excel@ Middle School and Excel@ High School, from Knowledge Adventure, are two inexpensive packages that provide independent learners with a comprehensive supplement to a secondary education.
Each program consists of six CDs, three of which cover a broad range of core academic subjects. Excel@ Middle School covers 12 subjects: Pre-Algebra, Algebra 1, Earth Science, Life Science, Physical Science, U.S. History, World History, Ancient Civilizations, Geography, Reading Comprehension, Grammar, and Vocabulary. Excel@ High School covers nine subjects: Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Geometry, Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus, Calculus, Life Sciences, Grammar, and Vocabulary. In addition to the core subjects listed above, both programs also bundle three CDs that contain a multimedia encyclopedia as well as instruction in special topics such as foreign languages, typing, and speed-reading.
Upbeat but distracting theme music plays in the background by default. But you can easily turn it off on the home page.
When you choose a subject, the program will immediately ask whether you want to take a diagnostic test. Each diagnostic test consists of approximately 16 questions. When you finish the test, the program gives you the percentage of correct answers, but unfortunately, it doesn't tell you which questions you answered incorrectly, much less what the right answers are. Although this missing feature may be less significant in fact-specific questions on vocabulary, it would be extremely helpful in pinpointing weaknesses in concept-based topics such as math or even grammar. The program also has a minor but annoying quirk: all high scores on the diagnostic tests, including those of 100 percent, generate a generic voiceover response of "Nice job. Now let's see if you can top that the next time around."
After getting the results of your diagnostic test, you can move on to the study portion. Each subject is divided into an extensive list of topics and subtopics, so you can specifically study "agreement with compound subjects" instead of subject-verb agreement in general. Lessons consist of text and pictures that you read and study plus printable reference sheets for information such as math formulas. Afterward, you take an informal practice test that lets you guess until you choose the correct answer. The program tracks your progress and lists your test scores alongside each topic, so you'll know when you're ready to take the final topic test.
Although speed reading and typing may not be rigorously tested at the secondary level, these skills do come in handy as homework increases. The bundled program Ultimate Speed Reader trains you to read faster by forcing you to read highlighted passages at prescribed speeds, one phrase at a time. It isn't clear how effective these exercises are in the long term, but they do sharpen your concentration skills quickly.
For those who are interested in exploring foreign languages, both packages come with French for the Real World and Spanish for the Real World. The two programs use a fun and effective approach, taking you on a road-race adventure in which you play vocabulary games and learn as you go along. The programs are detailed and well thought-out, yet simple enough for elementary school children to try out.
Macworld's Buying Advice
At only $20 each, Excel@ Middle School and Excel@ High School are solid programs that offer more material than any textbook at that price. Although you may want to consult subject-specific software for in-depth learning, both these programs provide a lot of extra practice and ensure that you develop well-rounded skills.Call the Doctor: The diagnostic tests in Excel@ Middle School and Excel@ High School don't tell you which problems you answered incorrectly.Quick Read: The bundled Ultimate Speed Reader program trains you to read faster while maintaining comprehension.