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The Crazy-making Testing of Four Year Olds

September 27, 2013

A recent articles on testing four year olds to get into private schools illustrates the adverse and perverse consequences of high stakes testing and the negative influence it is having on children who haven’t even started school yet.

NYTimes article following up on the recent decision of elite private schools to abandon the ERB (see earlier post on this topic) reported on the fact that anything less than a score in the 99th percentile was demoralizing to parents. The Times rightly attributed these high scores to coaching but missed a chance to explain to readers WHY this happens. Standardized tests base their scales on the raw scores of cohorts of prior test takers. In the case of a test like the ERB, where the content of test items remain relatively fixed, coaching test-takers to master the content for the test can yield higher raw scores which, in turn, translate to larger number of students achieving higher percentiles. Furthermore, since tests like the ERB don’t have hundreds of questions, the difference between scoring in the 99th percentile and, say, the 95th percentile could be the result of missing one question. By explaining this to readers the Times could help them see the absurdity of using a standardized test to distinguish “Gifted and Talented” children from those children who are nominally “Ungifted and UnTalented”. If you don’t think that is happening to the four year olds who score in the 95th percentile instead of the 99th percentile, read this article or eavesdrop on conversations at the playground.

This high-stakes testing of four year olds has a perverse effect on preschool children. From the time they are born many parents track their physical and intellectual growth monitoring when they learn to walk, the size of their vocabulary, the complexity of their thought patterns, and their ability to perform mathematical calculations. The children are relentlessly compared to their peers and drilled, tutored and enrolled in a host of enrichment programs designed to increase their performance on standardized tests. And this test preparation is hardly limited to those preschoolers seeking entry to elite preschools. In districts like NYC tests are administered before children enroll in school to see if they are eligible for entry into magnet elementary schools and, once in school, they are immediately groomed for the next sequence of high-stakes tests to qualify them for magnet middle schools.

The coaching for entry level test also has the perverse effect of limiting the number of children raised in poverty from gaining access to the public magnet and charter schools in NYC or any other district where “gifted and talented” testing takes place. The children of parents who have the time and resources to prepare for tests will do far better than children whose parents are working two jobs to make ends meet or spend several hours in day care centers or homes that do not offer intellectual stimulation. This has the effect of perpetuating and exacerbating the class divides in place.

At some point parents will see the senselessness of placing their children on the testing treadmill and take back childhood. In the meantime, let the tests continue and ignore the consequences.

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