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Test Preparation Industry Booming as Parents Gird for Common Core

By Amy Zimmer | September 11, 2013 8:19am
 The city's test prep companies are seeing a boon in business from families who want help with Common Core standards.
Test Prep Companies Help City Kids with Common Core Standards
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MANHATTAN — It's only the first week of school for most New York City kids, yet many families are already fretting over the new, more difficult English and math exams.

That's good news for at least one New York City industry: test-prep companies. These entrepreneurs say they're seeing a significant uptick in business as families brace for tougher tests aligned to the new Common Core standards.

“Parents were extremely upset about how difficult the tests were and how their children just weren’t prepared," said Karen Quinn, a testing expert and co-founder of TestingMom.com. "Kids were distressed as well. They don’t like to go into a test and feel unprepared and unable to answer the questions."

In response, companies across the city have been speedily creating study guides and other tools based on the Common Core, which emphasizes critical thinking, reading comprehension and problem solving in both English and math.

In some respects, they appear to be responding faster than the schools themselves. 

Teachers have said the Department of Education began rolling out the new standards before adequately training them. Many families also worry that school lesson plans aren’t yet up to speed — the recent dismal exam scores reflect that — and have been looking for other ways to bolster their kids' test scores, leaders from the test-prep industry said.

“A lot of teachers don’t like the test. They feel it takes away from class time,” said Suzanne Rheault, CEO and founder of Aristotle Circle, which offers tutors, advisers and test-prep books. “Most say it’s not meaningful."

Yet the stakes are high. The test scores can determine whether students will need summer school or repeat a grade and are also used to determine entrance into elite middle and high school programs.  

"If you’re a parent it does matter, especially if you want to get your kid into a 'gifted' middle school," Rheault said.

Aristotle Circle began offering detailed assessments in 2012 on New York Common Core standards for reading and math that can pinpoint a student's grade level in specific content areas. (For instance, a third grader might be able to do fractions at the sixth-grade level, but perform poorly on multiplication, Rheault explained.)

These assessments, which cost $99, have become "the No.1 requested service for families attending public school, surpassing our OLSAT/NNAT [for gifted and talented programs] and Stanford-Binet/Hunter test preparation,” Rheault said. “As a follow-up, many families request our peer tutors review materials and go over areas of weakness.”

Requests for peer-tutors — college grads from NYU, Columbia and Barnard, with rates that start at $50 an hour — were up 700 percent in June compared to last year, Rheault said.

Bright Kids NYC, a tutoring and test-prep material business, doubled the number of fall classes at its Financial District and Upper West Side locations from about 30 to 60, and it plans to hire 70 additional teachers by January to lead the sessions that run from $25 to $42. Bright Kids is also hosting fall workshops to explain the Common Core in detail, its CEO and president Bige Doruk said.

“We had a big wave last spring, particularly [of students] in fourth and seventh grade, and then this summer we did a lot of one-on-one tutoring. We’re going to get more and more demand,” Doruk said.

Bright Kids is even working with a handful of educators to offer supplemental classes at schools and has a full line of English Language Arts (ELA) and math prep books on the way.

Last month's release of the results from the new state tests nudged even more families into action, industry experts said. Parents saw how well the gifted and talented schools performed — the top four scoring schools on the fourth-grade ELA, for example, were all G&T schools, according to an analysis — and many called asking for a preparation boost, said Doruk, whose son attends Lower Lab, a G&T school on the Upper East Side that ranked third in the city.

Experts from TestingMom.com — whose biggest market is helping kids prep for the G&T and private-school admissions exams — have partnered with online educational providers from across the country that are aligning their material with Common Core standards. Members of Quinn's site pay between $10 and $40 a month for access to animated lessons, game-like quizzes and other materials that specifically target the New York ELA and math tests.

“We’ve noticed a significant rise over the last year in parents seeking help with general achievement, ELA and math test preparation,” Quinn said.

Still, she emphasized that the “official” tests based on the Common Core standards haven’t been created yet.

“The [city’s Department of Education] created their own tests based on these standards and administered them before teachers had even been trained to deliver content that fulfills these standards,” Quinn said.

“Everyone expects that it will take several years for the teaching to catch up with the more rigorous Common Core standards and that test scores will suffer during that time, as a result.”

Regardless, it’s important to keep in touch with teachers to stay abreast of your child’s performance, Quinn added.

“Know what your child is expected to learn each year,” she advised. “If your child is falling behind, learn where that is happening and make a plan with the teacher to jump in and help.”

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Morris Cohen offers advice on how to talk to children about test results here.