Test Prep Comes Out of the Closet: What’s Really Behind Some of NYC’s High Test Scores?

New York City kids have just finished sitting for the 2017 English Language Arts state tests and so this seems like a good time to talk about the tutoring epidemic that goes beyond four-year-olds prepping to ace Gifted & Talented screenings, and teens cramming for the Specialized High School Admissions Test.

Those exams are for accelerated programs and require going above and beyond what’s taught at the average public school. But thousands of students are also getting outside help to prepare for the English and Math state tests, which are supposed to measure how much they’ve learned during the year. In this case, tutoring obscures school quality and skews NYC’s important attempts at true accountability.

How do I know that there is massive tutoring going on?

To start with, new tutoring companies wouldn’t be popping up literally every day if there wasn’t a market for them. All anyone has to do is walk by a Kumon, Huntington, Bright Kids, or FasTracKids tutoring center, peek in the window, and see all the kids with their state test prep books. When my oldest son, now a senior in High-School, was younger, tutoring was still an under-the-radar thing. Kids who mentioned they had a tutor were quickly shushed by their parents, who would apologetically stammer, “They’re only having trouble with this one thing. It’s just until he/she catches up with the rest of the class.”

Now with my third child, a 4th grader, you call up for a play-date and hear, “Well, Tuesday is no good, he/she has math tutoring, and Friday is ELA, but Wednesday is good!

Test prep has come out of the closet and become just another afterschool enrichment activity.

My husband is a teacher and, in addition to kids in his class raising their hands to protest, “but that’s not how my tutor told me to do this problem,” he also tutors. Past students have included kids as young as 1st grade whose parents were already getting them ready for state tests.

So, if all kids are succeeding, why is this a problem?

It’s a problem because many of the parents who are getting their own children privately-tutored (including one celebrity public school advocate) are the same ones who proclaim that their local school is terrific – just look at the high-test scores!

Except how much is the school itself actually contributing to those test scores, and how much is coming from parents who have the means to pay for extra support?

Families entering a highly-ranked institution expecting that everything they need to excel will be provided in the classroom may end up sorely disappointed. They may also feel pressured, either by fellow moms and dads or by the school itself, to “keep up with Joneses” and get their child prepped, since, when it comes to middle and high-school admissions, students are compared against one another, and every fraction of a point counts.

Back in November, when talking about District 3’s desegregation plan, I wrote:

Once, PS 191 stuck out and made it easier for parents to demand that the DOE do its job and educate these children…. With the lower-performing population mixed in among high-achievers (but without the tutors and other resources wealthier children have access to), the DOE’s continued failure becomes much easier to hide. Does it really matter if a school has a 98% passing rate, or an 83% passing rate? (I)t still matters to the 17% of kids who didn’t pass.

The situation grows even more dire when you remember that state test scores are supposed to hold the school accountable for how well they are preparing their students. High scores suggest all is well when that, in fact, might not be the case.

Outside test prep obscures inefficient teachers, badly written curriculum, and an administration that allows kids to fall through the cracks unless their families intervene.

I absolutely do not blame parents for getting professional help when schools are failing their kids. But I do blame those who don’t cop to it, thus allowing the unacknowledged incompetence to go on doing damage to other people’s children.

And I very much blame those schools which are so inept that they make outside tutoring necessary in the first place.

What do you think?

One thought on “Test Prep Comes Out of the Closet: What’s Really Behind Some of NYC’s High Test Scores?

  1. This is not unique to NYC, it is common in all the booming metropolitan areas, particularly where there are large populations of immigrants who value education for their children. Here in the California Bay Area there are tutoring centers in strip malls everywhere.

    I agree with you that the prevalence of tutoring centers indicates that the schools are not doing an adequate job. But I see no awareness of this in the district schools, either by the teachers or the administrators or in the PTAs.

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