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 standardized 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?