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Posted at 12:49 PM ET, 04/04/2012

New York firm publishes test-prep book for TJ entrance exam

A new player is entering the crowded field of businesses that aim to help eighth-grade students improve their chances of admission to Fairfax County’s elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Aristotle Circle is a New York-based college-counseling firm that has been featured in news stories for offering test-prep services to children as young as four, whose striving parents are seeking an edge in the fight for spots Manhattan’s selective preschools.

Now the company is turning its attention to Thomas Jefferson. On Monday, Aristotle Circle will publish what the company says is the first test-prep workbook specifically designed for preparing students to take the TJ entrance exam.

The firm is marketing the book — which will retail at $199 and include about 300 sample questions, answers and explanations — as a low-cost alternative to test-prep courses and one-on-one tutors, which can cost thousands of dollars a year.

“We want a level playing field,” said Suzanne Rheault, the company’s chief executive, who hinted that the workbook might even hold the key to improving racial diversity at TJ, where Latino and black students have long been underrepresented.

“People who can’t afford tutoring can now do it on their own,” Rheault said.

Grace Chung Becker, president of the Fairfax County Association for the Gifted, was skeptical of those claims. “I’m not sure how the less affluent kids are going to afford a $200 book,” Becker said.

She pointed out that parents can currently buy much cheaper workbooks that prepare students for the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT — a test that’s very similar to the TJ test (and is authored by the same company).

Those test-prep books can cost as little as $8.85, according to a search on Amazon.

Aristotle Circle said its TJ book costs more because it’s “developed and manufactured in the U.S.” rather than overseas, and because it incorporates insights and advice gathered through interviews with current TJ students.

The company said SHSAT books include question types — such as verbal analogies — that don’t appear on the TJ test, which wastes students’ study time. And SHSAT books don’t offer guidance on essay questions, which the TJ book will address.

Aristotle Circle said it hopes to reduce the book’s price over time and offer an e-version at a lower price.

John Torre, a spokesman for Fairfax County Public Schools, said the school system doesn’t endorse any particular commercial test-prep program, but does want parents and students to know that they don’t have to pay for help.

A free handbook written by the testing company, Pearson, describes the exam and offers a study guide with sample problems and an answer key.

The exam is just the first hurdle for students seeking admission to TJ. They’re also judged according to teacher recommendations, middle-school grade point averages in math and science and other measures.

Last year, 3,310 students applied for admission and 480 — or about 15 percent — were offered a spot at the school. Admission decisions for next fall were mailed out March 30.

By  |  12:49 PM ET, 04/04/2012

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