September 02, 2010

Testing Toddlers

image By Hilary Levey

Post-doctoral Fellow, Harvard University

I neither have children, nor do I live in New York City. Yet, I felt stressed out when I heard the recent news that the New York City Department of Education may begin testing three-year-olds for places in kindergarten classrooms at public schools. If the Department of Education goes forward with this plan, they must work to ensure that all children have equal opportunities to gain admission. Otherwise the current proposal will only worsen a worrying trend towards unequal access to the City’s best schools.

New York City has long been dedicated to its gifted and talented youth and many of its schools serve as exemplary models for schools nationwide. Students gain admission to most elementary school programs by taking two tests at age four or five: the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment. Prior to 2007, application dossiers included teacher evaluations. But beginning in 2008 the decision comes down solely to performance on these clip_image002standardized tests.

The shift to age three testing is meant to help parents make decisions about their children’s education sooner rather than later. This sped-up process highlights the current competitive culture among the five-and-under set in wealthier parts of New York City, where the prevailing wisdom is that where a child attends kindergarten determines whether or not the Ivy League will ever be in reach.

Parents are understandably extremely anxious about their children’s long-term educational and economic futures. Given the current economic environment, fewer parents can afford to send their kids to private schools, so getting their little ones into a gifted classroom is more important than ever. Some some public elementary New York City schools have recently not had enough space to accommodate neighborhood children, which helps explain the emergence of Aristotle Circle and Bright Kids NYC. These companies, for a price (we’re talking up to four figures), will do test prep for three- and four-year-olds, selling parents the possibility of securing lifelong bragging rights about their children.

But kindergarten admission is about more than just bragging rights for parents. New research by a group of economists shows that what happens in kindergarten matters a lot. A better kindergarten class improves not only your odds of going to college and earning a good living, but also the chance that you marry or own a home. The researchers also found that by age 27 students who had had more experienced kindergarten teachers earned an average of $900 per year more than peers who had less experienced kindergarten teachers.

It turns out that the results from a standardized test that determines placement in gifted programs actually does prove useful in predicting how successful you will be later in life, according to their research. Despite constant complaints about standardized tests—that they favor girls over boys, as well as members of the middle class—the fact is that they do a reasonably good job of measuring something that predicts success later in life, especially if you think of success in terms of income (though, this is debatable, of course). So we can’t blame the tests themselves, even if three- or four-year-olds are the test takers.

What we can do is blame a system that provides differential access to information about the tests and stacks the deck against low-income families. This information ranges from the most basic type (how and when to take the right tests, and the basic components of each test) to the more complex (how to prepare a four-year-old to sit still for thirty to forty minutes while interacting with a strange adult). Perhaps the most worrisome fact is that since 2008 when the City switched to using these exams exclusively, the number of minority gifted kindergartners has dropped by nearly 20%.

As a sociologist, I worry about such inequality. One relatively simple step the Department of Education could take to ensure that preschool testing doesn’t exacerbate existing inequality is to provide information about the testing, along with test-prep materials, to all preschool parents. More specifically, they should target Head Start centers, where parental networks are strong but knowledge about these topics may not be as extensive as it is among parents who frequent UrbanBaby.com or belong to a Soho parenting group.

I care about this issue not only because I’m a social scientist but also because I hope to be a parent one day. And though I may not parent in New York City, I do care about the decisions of the New York Department of Education. New York is a trendsetter in many ways—so it should set the right trends in areas that really matter. What are other steps New York City, and other school systems around the country, could take to promote more equal access to gifted education?

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Comments

I think that the talented school is a great idea because with the economy today it is hard to send your child to a private school. I do not have children but I am studding education. I think that the test gives the children stress in their lives, which is not good for them. But I think its is the appropriate way to determine what children should attend since there is limited space. Since the children have a higher IQ then it will be easier for the teachers to keep the children on one level and not focus on balancing the classroom out.

I also think that the talented school is a good idea. It will give other kids more of an opportunity. But adding stress to a young child could influence how they are in the future. But with taking the test, you would be able to place the chilren in the righ tclass easier.

This sounds like the start of China taking its children at 2 and placing them all in schools. Making sure they all wear the same uniform and if they don't get there on time the gates shut. It is to bad if it shuts on one of the 2 years old and kills them. Public schools should allow children to be children. Parents should not be growing an Einstein but a child who should not be subjected to all the stresses that some parents want to place on them. When I volunteered at a local hospital, I even had to ask a doctor to give a parent of a kindergardner to give the child a note because he was hospitalized and the parent said that the school would drop their son from the private school he attended if he didn't show up! I thought too bad that kid is probably going to end up in a mental hospital some day.

I think the idea of having talented classroom in a school is good one. It allows children who are smarted learn in a environment more suited to their needs. However, I don't think standardized tests accurately measures the intelligence of a 4 year old in all situations. But even so, if a child doesn't do well on the test at age 4 or 5, but shows later that they need more of a challenge in school, they can always be moved to gifted classes.

Of course to have an intelligent person in a classroom is being advantage to every one and of course to the teacher it easily proceed to the next lesson.

Test on kids are to look at the behaviors they achieve in loving, cognitive expressions, but to have a true test would not have a bearing , because kids pick up at different levels depending on homelife.

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