Now, after years of exacerbating class differences among the college-bound, test-prep companies are expanding their offerings downward to cover children as young as six. The reason is the testing mania spawned by the school reform movement. In the 1990s, outraged by the low quality of so many public schools, many states, encouraged by Washington, imposed rigorous tests that students must pass before they can advance to the next grade. Sensing an opportunity, companies like Kaplan Inc. began developing prep courses for those tests and marketing them to the anxious parents of K-through-12 students. This fever peaked last year with the passage of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which requires such tests for every public school student in America in grades three through eight by 2006. Schools failing to meet annual test score standards for three straight years risk being shut down or reconstituted with new teachers, and their students must be offered private tutoring vouchers paid for by the federal government. Unsurprisingly, test-prep companies see the law, and especially its provision for federal tutoring vouchers, as a vast new opportunity. “The market for test prep is on fire,” says Amy Wilkins, a senior analyst at the Education Trust.

To see these courses at work, I recently visited Kaplan’s Score! Educational Center in Alexandria, Va. Sandwiched between a Whole Foods Market and a Starbucks in a typical suburban strip mall, the center was teeming with eager grade-schoolers, some of them fresh from soccer practice in red jerseys and cleats. Academic competitiveness was already in full bloom. “I want to be ahead of people, not behind them,” announced one of the young soccer players, Kayvon Naghdi, who can recite by heart his score on the Virginia Standards of Learning test. Said Jessica Peraertz, proud mother of eight-year-old Isabella, “I think [Kaplan] has actually made her be ahead of other kids in her class.” As students stationed themselves before computers for a two-hour tutoring class, parents hovered nearby monitoring their children’s progress or ducked out to grab a latte. The one constant was that they seemed every bit as determined for their child to excel as those of older students eyeing Yale and Harvard.

Critics of high-stakes tests are up in arms against this creeping obsession. “There is this testing bandwagon momentum that is really getting out of hand,” says Arnold F. Fege, president of Public Advocacy for Kids and a longtime activist for public schools. Critics like Fege worry that, like the SAT test prep, kiddie test prep will inordinately benefit children of the affluent; that it will draw money and emphasis from classroom learning; and that it will stress tactics and strategy over actual learning. “It reduces the motivation for learning to simply beating the tests,” says Monty Neill, executive director of Massachusetts-based FairTest. “The test prep companies are sort of vultures picking at the body of the school.”

As a matter of fact, this new test prep boom may actually do more good than harm. Indeed, if it’s done right, K-12 test prep could have the opposite effect of what its critics anticipate, helping close the achievement gap rather than widen it, increase student learning rather than distract from it, and perhaps serve as one of the keys to effective standards-based education.

At the Alexandria Score! center, one student stood apart from the rest. A study in urban-suburban contrast, 17-year-old Antwain Proctor sported a bright white t-shirt with “Score!” emblazoned on the back, baggy denim shorts, a nylon headband, and a stone in his left ear. Antwain had recently completed his sophomore year in high school, reading at just a second-grade level, with math skills at a fifth-grade level. Given his age and performance level, conceded Score!’s David Smith, “he’s not our typical student.” But he is a testimony to the possibilities of test prep.

Antwain escaped an abusive father only to drift between foster homes until his aunt, Shirley Proctor, adopted him four years ago. He has repeatedly failed Maryland’s high-school exit exams and is awaiting the results of the math exam he retook in October. Desperate to get her son up to speed, Shirley signed him up for weekly visits to the Alexandria Score! center this summer, with encouraging results: After just four months, Antwain has gained almost a full grade level in both math and reading.

On the day I visited, he was plugging away at a computer terminal. As I watched, a math question flashed on his screen: “11×13=?” Antwain scratched away on a clipboard and typed in his answer, 26. Try again, the computer told him. Antwain raised his hand, and one of the center’s “coaches” came over.

Companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review earned their reputations by helping students beat college entrance exams, but as this episode indicates, their programs for elementary and middle school tests–especially for kids who are lagging in school–seem to be different. The SAT, not directly based on any curriculum, is a distinctly more abstract measure of aptitude and cleverness. Consequently, SAT test-prep courses teach test-taking strategies designed to maximize one’s score, not a formal body of knowledge. Good state tests, on the other hand, measure whether a student has mastered the curriculum taught in the classroom. So test-prep courses like Antwain’s focus on learning the material supposed to have been learned in school. This sort of prep work is less tactical, and more like homework. Because state-standard tests are supposed to measure actual learning, prep courses teach substance over strategy.

A sampling of test-prep publications indicates that their materials do seem more academically oriented than SAT-prep books. Kaplan’s “No-Stress Guide to the 8th Grade MCAS,” for the Massachusetts test offers lessons on fractions, percentages, and geometry as well as help with writing and reading comprehension. Which is not to say that it lacks tips for gaming the exam. The math section, for example, offers a strategic reminder to study up on triangles “since they are the MCAS makers’ favorite shape.” And the English composition section advises students to pay more attention to arguments than to grammar because the test assigns more points for the essay’s content. But on the whole, the emphasis appears to be on learning.

The emphasis on teaching certainly seems to be benefiting Antwain. His mother is thrilled that he’s finally learned how to sound out words. “I feel like I’m learning more,” he told me in between math exercises. “Since I’ve been coming here, I’ve been doing better.”

In fact, good test prep, says Eva Baker, a testing expert and education professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, could be a real boon to poor children. She likens it to the Japanese “jukus,” the extraordinarily popular after-school prep programs for children who are gunning to pass the highly competitive middle and high school entrance exams that determine their academic future. “My experience has been–it was counterintuitive–but what I saw going on [in the jukus] was more fun and more interesting for the kids than what I saw going on in the school,” she said. “If they were simply drudgery, the kids wouldn’t want to go, and they would complain.” Antwain’s case bears this out. “He doesn’t look at it as doing school work,” says his mother, who sends two of her children to Score!. “Some days, I don’t feel like driving there. But they bug me about going.”

Antwain is lucky. He has a devoted adoptive mother who is determined to help him in school and can foot the $129 monthly bill for Score!. “I’m handling it,” she says. “Sometimes you’ve got to cut back other things, [but] as long as he passes, and he can come out reading, then it’s all worth it.”

But as critics point out, many, if not most, poorer students in failing schools have neither the parental backing nor the money to attend test-prep courses, so what’s the chance that they’ll get this kind of preparation?

The answer is: pretty good. That’s because of another crucial difference between the SAT and state-level tests: Nobody gives poor kids money to prep for the SAT, and so only students whose parents can afford it benefit. But under the new Bush plan, the federal government will commit a still-to-be-determined amount of money for tutoring services like K-12 test prep, most of which will be directed to failing schools in low-income areas–in other words, its greatest benefits should accrue to those least likely to be able to afford traditional test prep.

Test-prep companies have already realized that the real money for elementary and middle school test prep may lie in the city, not the suburbs, and are planning accordingly. “It’s not the Scarsdales of the world who are looking for our services,” says Stephen Kutno of Princeton Review. “It is the Washington D.C.s, the Baltimores, the Yonkerses That’s where the market is.”

Both Princeton Review and Kaplan began marketing to younger students with pilot projects in the 1990s. Kaplan, which targeted suburban parents who had the money for test prep with clinics like the one in Alexandria, now operates 150 Score! centers. Princeton Review developed a different strategy, selling its services to schools, not to individual parents (an approach that Kaplan also later adopted; it now offers courses in 500 schools). Today, Princeton Review runs programs in 2,000 schools in 30 states. Kutno estimates that about 80 percent of its business is in urban areas because that’s where the need is and where state money has been available to pay for it. Now that the federal government is getting into the private education services area, Kutno says his company’s business plan is to pursue more of the same.

Without large-scale studies, it is impossible to know how much, if any, such programs will boost youngsters’ skills and test scores, but the numbers available are encouraging. Kaplan’s Score! program in Brooklyn, its most popular and lowest-income center, reported that on average its students improved 1.2 grade levels in reading and 1.7 grade levels in math after six to nine months. An independent survey of test scores in five Texas schools showed that Princeton Review was significantly narrowing the achievement gap between low performers and their higher-achieving peers.

So, test prep holds promise for low-income students, and there’s federal money to pay for it (a typical K-12 test-prep course costs $600–roughly the per-capita amount that most lawmakers expect the Bush tutoring vouchers to disburse). But that doesn’t mean it will work. Tutoring vouchers face all the same obstacles that have ruined other federal efforts to aid poor students.

First, test prep truly boosts learning only if the tests themselves measure the same learning that was supposed to have been imparted in the classroom–presuming, of course, that the classroom curriculum itself is of high quality. Good tests must both cover the important material in the state curriculum and apply sophisticated measures like essay questions to gauge whether a child actually learned the material, as opposed to simpler tests that can be gamed by regurgitating memorized facts. Some states do have both strong curriculum and high quality tests, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Michigan. However, many states, like California, rely on cheap off-the-shelf tests like the “Stanford-9” that aren’t really tied to the state curriculum. Likewise, Oregon, New Mexico, and Montana received failing grades in a recent Princeton Review Study that measured how well state tests reflect the state curriculum. This is a crucial shortcoming that the No Child Left Behind Act failed to fix (see “Bush’s Big Test,” by Thomas Toch, November 2001).

Second, there are bureaucratic obstacles. One of the biggest concerns for both Kaplan and Princeton Review is that school districts will make it too difficult for parents to sign up. Teachers’ unions may try to block the programs, and if schools don’t take an active role in alerting parents, they may not be aware of the benefits. Princeton Review’s Kutno recounted a recent such shortfall in Pennsylvania in which a complicated payment reimbursement setup appears to have led to a low participation rate in a state program for outside tutoring. As a result, Kutno decided not to seek a contract there because he feared both an insufficient market and a bookkeeping nightmare. “It wasn’t a prudent business decision,” he explains. State and local laws may also prove burdensome. Kaplan was rejected by North Carolina because it couldn’t promise that all of its teachers would have three years’ experience.

Third, good test prep can’t be carried out on the cheap. Both companies offer school-based tutoring programs that rely largely on local public school teachers to impart the curriculum. School boards prefer it that way because it’s cheaper–Kaplan charges four times as much to send one of their own instructors to teach a class as it does to train a teacher how to do it. This puts poor kids at a number of disadvantages. Low-performing schools got that way because the quality of teaching isn’t too hot. There’s little reason to believe that lousy teachers will become effective test-prep instructors with a few hours of training by Kaplan. Additionally, failing schools tend to experience high teacher turnover, and so training teachers can be expensive and fruitless for cash-strapped schools. And teachers, or at least their union leaders, tend to be the greatest opponents of high-stakes testing–hardly the type likely to embrace the benefits of test prep. Plus, in a time of shrinking state budgets, test-prep companies worry that states will find creative ways to funnel the new federal money for tutoring into day-to-day school operations. “We’ve had situations where money was allocated for programs like Princeton Review and after the state budget process those monies disappeared,” says Kutno.

A final obstacle may prove to be found at home. Test-prep programs for poor kids will work only if parents are motivated enough to seek them out. Had Antwain remained suspended in foster care, there’s little reason to think that he’d have made it to Score! even if it had been freely available through federal funding. Still, for children whose parents do take advantage, quality test prep could mean the difference between graduating from high school and dropping out.

It is a sad comment on the state of many public schools that a separate private system has to be set up to help kids master material they should have learned in the classroom. It would, of course, make more sense to fix the schools themselves. The No Child Left Behind Act may help do that, though much more will be needed, including more money and better teachers. But until the schools start doing their job, the test-prep programs offered by companies like Princeton Review and Kaplan could turn out to be the only hope that many kids have of getting through school with the basics of an education. For that reason alone, they’re worth rooting for.

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