Parents Teaching Preschoolers for the Test?

Parents Teaching Preschoolers for the Test?

Photo by Sean Dreilinger

In the years since New York City began using standardized tests to screen children for entrance to gifted and talented elementary school classes, an industry has evolved to prepare three- and four-year-olds to ace the exams. Private companies sell expensive workbooks, tutoring sessions and test preparation packages to many of the families whose children will be tested each year. As a result, the percentage of students who qualify for the program increases annually, with a clear disparity in scores between working-class and wealthy neighborhoods. And while a new test will be unveiled next year, test-prep firms have already begun marketing study materials for it.

Test Preparation for Toddlers
New York City uses two standardized tests to determine aptitude for the gifted and talented program: the Olsat reasoning test and the Bracken knowledge exam. The tests cover everything from basic logical abilities to the meaning of words like “rhombus” and “trapezoid.” Test preparation materials can cost as little as $50 for a set of sample questions to more than $100 for private tutoring and weekend “boot camp” study programs. And preparation has had a significant effect on test scores. According to the New York Times, the number of children qualifying for gifted and talented programs has increased 22 percent since last year, and it has doubled in the last four years.

Social Justice Perspective
While many parents feel a responsibility to provide all possible advantages for their children, it seems undeniable that paying exorbitant prices for pre-kindergarten test preparation contributes to class-disparity. According to the same New York Times article, 949 children qualified for the gifted and talented program in district two, an affluent area in Manhattan. In district seven, the historically underprivileged South Bronx, only six qualified. The highest-ranked gifted and talented elementary schools feed directly into exceptional gifted and talented high schools, which send a disproportionate number of students to Ivy League colleges; test preparation simply accentuates a gap in privilege that already familiar to all those teaching in New York City.

Special Education Perspective
Until fairly recently, gifted and talented programs were a part of special education, the program for those with physical, cognitive or emotional abnormalities that prevent them participating in mainstream public education. Gifted and talented children were seen as having similarly unusual learning styles and/or needs, consistently outperforming their peers to the degree that they required individual learning plans to progress. Test preparation means that smart kids who do not require this individual attention will receive it, while mainstream public school classrooms will lose some of their brightest pupils.

New York City’s Response
In 2010, New York City school officials acknowledged that test preparation may be influencing scores. in 2013, the Bracken knowledge exam will be replaced with the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, ostensibly a better measure of ability. But test-preparation firms have already begun offering preparation materials for that test, and they appear confident in their ability to adapt to its demands. So as long as standardized tests are used as the primary means of screening children for admission, it appears that test preparation is here to stay.

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