By Jenny Anderson
When the New York City Education Department announced that it was changing part of its admissions exam for its gifted and talented programs last year, in part to combat the influence of test preparation companies, one of those companies posted the news with links to guides and practice tests for the new assessment.
The day that Pearson, a company that designs assessments, announced that it was changing an exam used by many New York City private schools, another test prep company attempted to decipher the coming changes on its blog: word reasoning and picture comprehension were out, bug search and animal coding were in.
If you did not know what to make of it — and who would? — why not stop by?
Assessing students has always been a fraught process, especially 4-year-olds, a mercurial and unpredictable lot by nature, who are vying for increasingly precious seats in kindergarten gifted programs.
In New York, it has now become an endless contest in which administrators seeking authentic measures of intelligence are barely able to keep ahead of companies whose aim is to bring out the genius in every young child.
The city’s leading private schools are even considering doing away with the test they have used for decades, popularly known as the ERB, after the Educational Records Bureau, the organization that administers the exam, which is written by Pearson.
“It’s something the schools know has been corrupted,” said Samuel J. Meisels, an early-childhood education expert who gave a presentation in the fall to private school officials, encouraging them to abandon the test. Excessive test preparation, he said, “invalidates inferences that can be drawn” about children’s “learning potential and intellect and achievement.”
Last year, the Education Department said it would change one of the tests used for admission to public school gifted kindergarten and first-grade classes in order to focus more on cognitive ability and less on school readiness, which favors children who have more access to preschool and tutoring.
Scores had been soaring. For the 2012-13 school year, nearly 5,000 children qualified for gifted and talented kindergarten seats in New York City public schools. That was more than double the number five years ago.
“We were concerned enough about our definition of giftedness being affected by test prep — as we were prior school experience, primary spoken language, socioeconomic background and culture — that we changed the assessment,” Adina Lopatin, a deputy chief academic officer in the Education Department, said.
And yet test prep companies leapt to action, printing new books tailored to the new test and organizing classes.
Natalie Viderman, 4, spent an hour and a half each week for six months at Bright Kids NYC, a tutoring company, working on skills like spatial visualization and serial reasoning, which are part of the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, or NNAT 2, the new gifted and talented test. She and her mother, Victoria Preys, also worked every night on general learning, test prep and workbooks, some provided by Bright Kids.
“It is my philosophy that if you can get more help, why not?” Preys said. She prepared her son the same way and he benefited, she said, scoring in the 98th percentile, qualifying him for a seat. She interpreted the Education Department’s decision to change the test and “raise the standards,” she said, as a message that it expected parents to do more. “We are increasing the standards, so you have to work with your kids more, to prep more,” she said.
“Every time these tests change, there’s a lot of demand,” Bige Doruk, founder of Bright Kids, said. She said she did not accept the argument that admissions tests had been invalidated by test prep. “It is not a validity issue, it’s a competitive issue,” she said. “Parents will always do what they can for their children.”
And not all children who take preparation courses do well, she said. The test requires that 4-year-olds sit with a stranger for nearly an hour — skills that extend beyond the scope of IQ or school readiness.
Natalie also applied to Hunter College Elementary School in Manhattan; she missed the cutoff for the second round by a point.
Hunter, a public school for gifted children that is part of the City University of New York, requires applicants to take the Stanford-Binet V intelligence test, and until last year, families could pick one of 16 psychologists to administer the test. Uncovering who was the “best tester,” one who might give children more time to answer, or pose questions different ways, was a popular parlor game among parents.
But for this year’s admission process, the school announced that every family would be required to choose from only four testers. Randy Collins, Hunter’s principal, said the change was not related to families’ flocking to “easy” testers, but rather an attempt to ease the scheduling process. “We have seen no evidence that some are easy and some are tough, that some give extra time,” he said. And yet the decision seems to have had an impact: after several years in which scores rose, Collins said, scores did not go up this year.
Every year, a few children are dropped because it is apparent they had been prepared: they knew the answers even before the tester finished asking. But Collins, who is leaving to lead the Speyer Legacy School in Manhattan, a private school for gifted children, said he did not think the practice was widespread: “I may be an optimist: I don’t think there is as much prepping going on as people think.”
The ERB test was developed in the 1960s to prevent children who were applying to multiple private schools from having to take numerous tests. George P. Davison, who runs Grace Church School in Manhattan, said he knew how much test prep inflated results because when siblings of current students applied, they tended to score a few points lower. Because siblings receive preference in admissions at many schools, including his, their parents are less likely to seek extra help before the tests, he said.
Meisels, who is president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school and research organization in Chicago focusing on early childhood development, told the private schools admissions officers in November that the test was effective at identifying cognitive delays, diagnosing learning disabilities and measuring IQ the reasons the test was developed. But he argued that it was not a good admissions tool — which is what the schools are using it for.
“It is an off-label use,” he said. He told the schools that they could collect enough information from families to make an informed decision without the test — most schools require an interview with parents, a play date with the child, a report from the preschool and the records bureau.
The private school association is scheduled to vote soon on whether to abandon the ERB test, Davison said, although some veteran school admission officials said it was unlikely they would vote to do so. For all of its faults and susceptibility to manipulation, it also gives schools in high demand a way to say no other than “we didn’t like you, or your child,” several admissions directors said privately.
A new version of the test will be used starting April 1. Records Bureau officials said they revised the test based on “best practices”; some school officials, who were granted anonymity because schools officials are discouraged from talking publicly about their admissions process, said it was in response to excessive test prep.
Davison has suggested that the schools should develop their own test that would be administered by the schools themselves, and not by psychologists, who are widely believed to be, along with professors and consultants, among those supplying the tests to test prep companies.
When the Education Department announced its change to the public school gifted exam, Bright Kids was already well prepared: it had already developed NNAT 2 materials for children in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, where the test was already being used.
On a Thursday late last month just before Natalie took the test, her tutor handed her a packet of pattern completion problems and started to explain the directions. Natalie cut her off. “I know what to do,” she said, concentrating on her worksheets and answering every question correctly.