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Common Core Anxiety Spurs Test Prep Boom


It’s standardized testing week for public school students across New York State. For the second year, those tests reflect the new nationwide curriculum known as Common Core. The Common Core tests are hard—many of the concepts new. And with students struggling to keep pace, more and more parents are seeking outside help. As Avi Wolfman-Arent reports, Common Core means big business for academic tutoring.

Judith Ferrenbach runs Park Slope Tutorial Service from the living room of her Brooklyn apartment.

AMBI: Bring up sound of chatter. Play underneath narration.

Today she’s seated next to a fidgety fourth-grader, guiding her through an eleventh-hour tutoring session. The New York state assessments are one day away.

FERRENBACH: “Regarding tomorrow, how do you feel about things? Pretty good?” 

STUDENT: Pretty good. The only annoying part…

FERRENBACH: Tomorrow’s the multiple choice day?

STUDENT: Yeah, multiple choice…


They talk as much strategy as academics.

STUDENT: Most of the time I cover it and think of my own answer and then see if anything relates to that and try to figure it out. Or I just do P.O.E., process of elimination 

FERRENBACH: Yes. If you have a thought, your own thought.  It’s not bad, but it takes time. And the last thing you want to do is get to the end and have them say pencils up and you’ve still got five questions to do.


Beyond tactics, there’s the material. It’s so tough that sometimes even Ferrenbach is surprised.

STUDENT: So we have 3D figures and 2D polygons

FERRENBACH: That’s also, very…that’s remarkable that they’re giving you guys the 3D.


AMBI: Fade down chatter.

This kind of intense test prep used to be the stuff of college entrance exams. That’s changing, in part because standardized tests are changing. For starters, they matter. In New York City, scores can determine admission to public middle schools and high schools. They’re also hard—really hard. Last year almost 70 percent of New York students didn’t pass the English Language Arts portion. Many explained the performance drop as a result of new Common Core testing standards. Forty five states have already adopted Common Core, and it’s just starting to be rolled out. The standards aren’t just higher, they’re also unfamiliar. Parents don’t know if their kids can keep pace.

QUINN: “When parents see their kids coming up short on a standardized test, that makes them worried.” [0:06]

Karen Quinn runs the test-prep website She says parental anxiety is driving folks to her business. And they aren’t just concerned about one bad test. It’s what that one bad test represents.

QUINN: “You know that if your child isn’t performing at the grade level on the standardized test then they may have trouble in school next year. I mean it’s more than just a test score. The test score is indicative of:  Does my child know that the underlying materials that my school deems important? [0:21]

But there’s plenty of help out there. Type “Common Core” into Amazon and you’ll see titles like Common Core Companion and Common Core for Parents for Dummies. There’s an entire section of dedicted to Common Core test prep. There are even Common Core boot camps for students who need to cram.

Bob Schaeffer is a founding member of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.  He keeps tabs on a test prep industry that generates more than $800 million a year according to the research firm IbisWorld. Even though he isn’t fond of test prep, Schaeffer says Common Core will be a boon for tutors and test-prep experts.

SCHAEFFER: “There is a huge market, many, many more students in grades K-12. And with the federal mandate to test every kid every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school, there is a tremendous opportunity out there.” [0:13]

And once you’ve tutored a student for a third-grade test, and a fourth-grade test…

SCHAEFFER: “You can prep them for the secondary school admissions test and you can prep them for the PSAT, SAT, GRE, LSAT etcetera—right through the bar exam.” [0:09]

That’s one version of test prep’s future. Others think as everyone adjusts to Common Core standards, scores will even out and demand for test prep will wither. What’s certain now is the questions on standardized tests are getting tougher. And parents want answers.

Avi Wolfman-Arent, Columbia Radio News.


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