MARKET RESEARCHERS TURN CLASSROOMS INTO TEST LABS

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During morning class time recently, 60 elementary school children sat expectantly in the lunchroom of St. Mary's Star of the Sea School in Beverly, Mass., waiting for instructions about what to do with the cups of beverage in front of them. The kids had just completed 15 minutes of strenuous exercise in the gym and were now ready to dive into the serious business of tasting and evaluating sports drinks.

Following directions given by researchers from Education Market Resources, the children filled in questionnaires measuring how much they enjoyed each of the unnamed drinks. The youngsters loved the process, says their principal, Sister Danielle Sullivan. "I think they felt they were making decisions that mattered," she says.

The beverage marketer loved it, too. That day, the company learned a valuable lesson: which of its flavors were deemed "yucky" and, more importantly, which varieties kids would push their parents to buy.

OPENING DOORS

Until seven years ago, when Education Market Resources opened, this kind of in-school product testing was almost unheard of. But in the cash-strapped, increasingly free-market world of education, more schools are opening their doors to companies that want to test which products kids will clamor for.

Researchers say the data obtained from kids during school are especially reliable. The kids "know that's where they are asked to interact," says Robert Reynolds, president of Education Market Resources, which conducts 90% of its research in classrooms. "So they're very open to interacting with us. We had a vice president of marketing with McDonald's at one of our sites out in Los Angeles and he couldn't believe the difference in how the kids were interacting."

Is it valuable information? Marketers think so. A leading cerealmaker halted the launch of a campaign to introduce alien figures in one of its brands after test marketing in schools showed kids were ho-hum over the product.

"They were going to spend literally millions of dollars to try to increase market share with this whole new concept," Mr. Reynolds says, "and the kids didn't even like it."

WORKING FOR PEANUTS

For all the money a marketer saves rewards for participating schools are modest. Depending on the complexity of the activity and the number of kids involved, schools earn between $800 to a few thousand dollars for each encounter with Education Market Resources. Gwen Ater, a sixth grade teacher at Heatherstone Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan., says she gets $5 a student for surveys such as the one she and her class recently completed for Toys "R" Us.

"We're in a district that has good resources, but for things like class trips it's great," Ms. Ater says.

And then there's the argument that kids are wasting valuable learning time "working for peanuts." Ginny Markell, president of the national PTA, says her group opposes product testing during school hours because kids can't afford to give up the instructional time.

"School is not an appropriate place for children to be surveyed, to be questioned for any form of research," Ms. Markell says. "The time that they have in the classroom needs to be dedicated to quality education."

Elected officials, too, are wary of school-based product testing because parents -- and often students themselves -- may not be aware they are giving time to for-profit ventures. Some companies, such as Educational Market Resources, require parental consent, but Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.) wants to make it mandatory.Yet, even that may be too late. The floodgates to in-school market research are now open. Closing them -- or even limiting access -- may no longer

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