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High Stakes For Young Test Takers

Entrance exams for private middle and high schools cause stress, especially for parents.

February 06, 2007|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

On a recent Sunday morning, a determined Spencer Cutrow spent three hours hunched over an admission exam designed to test his reading, math and reasoning skills, with its outcome likely to help determine how he will spend the rest of his academic career.

But Spencer, 10, is anticipating middle school, not college. Although the test, the Independent School Entrance Exam, may not mean anything to most people, taking it is a rite of passage for thousands of students applying to private schools in Los Angeles and around the country.

Much like the SAT, which is required for college admission, the independent schools entrance exam provokes almost frenzied anxiety for parents and students.

Most students take the test in the fifth or sixth grade, and for many it is their first high-stakes standardized test, required for entry into such highly regarded schools as Harbor Day School in Corona del Mar, Chandler School in Pasadena and Crossroads School in Santa Monica, which Spencer wants to attend.

Not wanting to see their children at a disadvantage, parents are spending hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of dollars for one-on-one or small-group tutoring sessions, which have helped to fuel a rapid growth in services that cater to the private independent and parochial school market. (Most of the nation's parochial high schools require the High School Placement Test, another competitive standardized test.)

The swirl of excitement and angst over the exams is heightened this month as many students take the test on January and February weekends. It rivals the tension for Ivy League aspirants, much to the chagrin of parents like Mary Cutrow, Spencer's mom.

"I'm hearing from parents at school with older kids, and they're going through exactly the same thing with college," Cutrow said. "It's almost the same conversations going back and forth. I actually think there's less pressure with college, where you have hundreds of choices and kids apply to 10 schools. In L.A., there are only three or four top private schools."

Independent schools adopted the exam more than a decade ago so students would not have to take different entrance tests at each school they applied to. Many school admissions directors say it is ironic that the single test now is causing more stress.

Some school administrators are beginning to question whether the test is worth all the fuss, and some fear that tutoring has skewed scores. They say they are basing admissions decisions more on the essay portion of the test, which is forwarded to schools without being scored.

Nationally, the number of students taking the Independent School Entrance Exam has grown from about 21,000 to more than 42,000 in the last decade, according to the Educational Records Bureau, a New York-based nonprofit organization that administers the test. Los Angeles has the largest number of students who take the exam: 3,560 did so in 2005, said Elizabeth Mangas, who oversees the test.

Most independent middle and high schools in Los Angeles use the exam. A different private school admissions test, the Secondary School Admission Test, is more widely used in Northern California and other parts of the country.

Adam Ingersoll, co-owner of Compass Education Group, a tutoring service with offices in Beverly Hills and Marin County, said the number of students seeking private in-home tutoring for the Independent School Entrance Exam tripled in the last year, mainly through word-of-mouth referrals. The test preparation is rigorous, with one or two 90-minute sessions each week -- not including homework -- for up to four months, and costs as much as $3,000.

His company also provides tutoring at schools, for which participating families pay group rates. The private Wesley School, a kindergarten through eighth-grade campus in North Hollywood, offered classes this year with about two-thirds of its eighth-graders participating, said director of admissions Verena Denove. Parents of the rest, she added, probably opted for individualized tutoring.

"The reality is, because it is so competitive, most parents are providing some sort of test preparation these days, and if they don't, I think those kids are disadvantaged," said Denove. "I don't believe these classes can necessarily cram a kid's brain full of a bunch of new information, but it allows them to feel that they are well prepared and that they can perform to the maximum of their ability."

Jennifer Berman said the class appeared to help prepare her daughter Corey, a Wesley eighth-grader, who recently took both the independent and the parochial school placement tests. Corey is applying to Immaculate Heart, Notre Dame and Marymount high schools.

"There is a tremendous amount of pressure applying to high school," Berman said. "We were of the mind-set that we wanted to make it as easy as possible on our kids, take off some of the pressure and leave nothing to chance."

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