An article this week in the New York Times highlights how the high-stakes, testing-driven competition for a top-rated education continues to intensify in the US – and how tutoring is deemed crucial to students’ success.

The article highlights how competition for seats in New York City’s top public middle schools has fourth- and fifth-grade kids cramming for the state standardized tests. Top performance on these exams is deemed critical to getting into a prestigious middle school.

For example, the Salk School of Science had almost 800 applications for less than 150 spots in 2011. The scuttlebutt is that scoring a Level 4 (out of 4) on both the state reading and math exams for fourth graders is essential for admissions to selective middle schools like these.

As a result, parents (wealthy and not-so-wealthy) are spending thousands of dollars on private tutoring and group tutoring courses. This is in addition to test prep for these exams that is already provided by the elementary schools the students attend. Many parents view the extra tutoring as essential for success – that’s how competitive the environment has become for these kids.

In NYC, private tutoring and test prep has intensified to the point that 4- and 5-year-olds are being tutored for testing for admission to the city’s “gifted programs” in selective grade schools. The Education Department is switching to a new type of gifted testing in 2013, partly to address concerns that test prep and tutoring are skewing the results.

At the same time, the school system is supportive of tutoring: the article quotes the department’s chief academic officer as saying, “Students at schools with strong teaching and a rich curriculum should be well prepared for the annual exams. 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.”

Most of the children receiving the extra tutoring and test prep are not in need of remedial help, but are fine-tuning their skills so they “will be comfortable and not lose their cool.” Some kids begin their private tutoring for the tests that selective middle schools use for their admissions process in third grade – a year ahead. As reported in the Downtown Express, parents and kids feel that a lot is riding on these tests results.

As a result of the increasing demand for test prep for the fourth-grade state math and reading exams, tutoring companies are booming around NYC. Individual tutoring rates range from $75 to $150 per hour, and about 3,000 third- and fourth-grade children are prepping for the state tests at Kumon locations in Manhattan alone.

Not surprising given that just a couple of answers right or wrong could make the difference. But, of course, a good score doesn’t guarantee admission to a good school – it just qualifies the student to take another high-stakes test, this one administered by the school being applied to.

And it doesn’t end there – kids who want to apply to prestigious seventh-grade placements must score well on the New York State fifth-grade standardized tests also. That, too, means more work for tutors.

Does your work involve test prep for state middle school exams? How much pressure to excel on these tests do you see in your community? Please comment and add your observations.

Featured image courtesy of Jordan R. MacDonald.

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