The tutoring business has come a long way from Stanley Kaplan’s basement in Brooklyn, and test-preparation courses for college or private school admission are practically a rite of American education. But in New York City, where even seats in public schools can be the rewards of a Darwinian contest, the industry has found a whole new lode to mine.
The students in the Manhattan center, all high achievers in their elementary schools, were practicing for the state standardized tests that begin this week, exams that for years had typically been overlooked, if not ignored, by the parents of top performers.
But competition for top middle schools has intensified as more families choose to remain in the city and others find themselves unable to afford private schools, and performance on fourth- and fifth-grade standardized tests is crucial to getting into one of those schools. So many parents — some wealthy, some not — are now shelling out hundreds and even thousands of dollars for tutors and for courses like the eight-week Saturday morning boot camp in TriBeCa. And that is on top of test preparation that almost all elementary schools now provide in class.
“This is just us wanting to kind of ease the pressure of the test,” said the father of a third grader enrolled in the TriBeCa program, run by Bright Kids NYC. The program costs about $550 for eight one-hour tutoring sessions. He asked to remain anonymous because he feared his decision to pay for tutoring would reflect poorly on his daughter’s school, the Lower Lab School on the Upper East Side, which like most schools makes its own efforts to prepare students for tests. “I think a lot of families are tutoring in some way,” he said. “Everybody we know does something.”
The Education Department has not tried to discourage private tutoring, nor would officials say whether they are concerned about the possibility that it could give wealthier students an unfair advantage in middle school admissions. But the department has already seen an unusual rise in high scores on its tests for gifted programs, administered to 4- and 5-year-olds, with figures released on Friday showing 2,656 students qualifying for roughly 400 seats in the most selective schools this fall.
The department is switching to a new type of gifted test next year, partly in response to concerns that tutoring and test preparation are influencing the results.
“Students at schools with strong teaching and a rich curriculum should be well prepared for the annual exams,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer. “At the same time, we do encourage families to reinforce what students learn in the classroom with activities like reading, writing and solving complex problems.”
Bige Doruk, the founder of Bright Kids NYC, said she began offering the math and language arts boot camp in response to parental demand and had opened more classes in the last month, as the tests drew near. Most of the students in these classes do not need remediation, she said, but their parents want assurance that when the exams begin on Tuesday, their children will be comfortable and not lose their cool.
Some hire tutors when their children are in third grade, a full year before they will take the fourth-grade tests that many selective middle schools use for admissions.
“Parents are feeling the pressure more,” said Robin Aronow, a private and public school admissions consultant. “I know parents who have resisted tutoring because they thought it was crazy, but just the fact that I’ve had parents resist it means there’s a lot of it going on.”
Tutoring companies have popped up across the city, and a quick Internet search turns up dozens of one-on-one or group programs set up for the state’s math and reading exams.
Sylvan Learning advertises test prep for “any state test” on its Web site; Manhattan Edge Education offers individual tutoring for the state exams at rates of $80 to $150 an hour, its Web site says; Park Slope Tutorial Services, which charges $75 an hour, reminds parents just how tough it is to get into a good middle school. Although Kumon does not brand itself as tutoring for a particular exam, parents do use the company for the state tests, and roughly 3,000 third and fourth graders are currently enrolled in the 12 Manhattan locations.
This elbows-out and wallets-open competition for top middle schools is most apparent in Manhattan, where a boom in development has carried in a flood of elementary- and middle-school-age children. Since 2002, four new schools serving the middle grades have opened in District 2, which runs from the Upper East Side to Lower Manhattan, and others have expanded, according to the city. But that has not cooled the contest over selective middle schools like the Salk School of Science, which received 777 applications for 146 seats last year.
To have a shot at schools like these, fifth graders need to have scored at least a Level 3 — out of 4 — on both the reading and math exams in fourth grade. But at some of the most-sought-after schools, a Level 3, which means that the student met the state’s standards, is insufficient.
To apply to Delta, a gifted program at Middle School 54 on the Upper West Side, the children needed to reach Level 4 on both exams, or a combined scale score of 1,385 out of 1,575, according to the school’s Web site. At Anderson, one of the city’s most selective middle schools, they needed a 725 on the English test and a 731 on the math test. That means they could get no more than four wrong answers on the English test and five on the math test, making every missed question a costly one.
And those scores do not guarantee admission; they simply qualify the student to take another test, given by the school itself.
Students who want to take the Hunter College High School test for seventh-grade admission must score high on the fifth-grade standardized tests.
At one highly regarded school, East Side Middle School on the Upper East Side, each applicant is graded on a 30-point scale. Seven of those points are assigned based on students’ reading and math exam scores — 3.5 points for a score of 4, 2.5 for a score of 3 — and the rest are based on an interview, a writing sample, a math quiz and the elementary school report card.
The school received about five applications this year for every open seat — and those were only the applicants who ranked the school as their first choice. The principal, David Getz, said he had heard people talking about children being tutored for the fourth-grade exams, but had not noticed whether his incoming sixth graders had been prepped.
“I would hope parents were doing that because their kids were struggling over all, as opposed to just doing well on that specific test,” Mr. Getz said.