Cramming for Kindergarten

As schools seek to find students who 'fit,' some experts say pre-K kids aren't ready to be put to the test.


Alice Lessing remembers the day her kid was put to the test.

Alice's 4-year-old daughter, Ella, was a "summer birthday" child, taking an exam to determine if she would begin kindergarten that fall or wait another year. The person giving the test left the door ajar, and Alice listened as the questioning began.

"The woman was very nice," she says, "and she would ask her things like, 'Have you ever been to the zoo?'"

Alice (names of all parents and their children have been changed for this story) heard her daughter say no, they never went to the zoo. When asked to name some animals, Ella froze.

It didn't make sense. The family goes to the zoo constantly. "This is really a verbal kid," Alice says. "I knew she wasn't being her normal forthcoming self, and what the woman said to me afterward was something about how she was reticent and not ready for the challenge, or something like that. Ella is so outgoing, I felt like it did not in any way reflect anything truthful. And I didn't want to debate it with her because I didn't want to look like an anxious picky parent."

In the end, the school told Lessing her daughter had to put in another year of pre-K before starting kindergarten in the fall of 2002. Alice picked another school, and Ella is currently doing well -- in kindergarten.

For the past 20 years, both public and private schools across the nation have used a variety of developmental and intelligence tests as admissions and screening tools. The most widely used intelligence test for preschool children -- and the instrument used by most independent (private, non-parochial) schools in New Orleans -- is the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence-Revised, known as the WPPSI-R. (Public magnet schools such as Lusher and Audubon Montessori use a basic skills test, called the Metropolitan Test, for kindergarten entry.)

The WPPSI (pronounced "wippsy") tends to create consternation among relatively well-off parents concerned that their toddlers will be deemed "average" -- or worse. It contains a verbal and a nonverbal/perceptual section or "performance," each of which consists of five subtests. In the verbal portion, the child answers general-information questions and is tested for common-sense reasoning, as well as vocabulary and other language skills. The performance section asks the child to do puzzles and mazes, draw geometric shapes, and put together blocks to make designs.

A clinical psychologist administers the test, which takes about an hour and a half and costs around $200. At the end of the process, parents receive a two page report containing both IQ percentiles and accompanying labels -- from "Very Superior" to "Mentally Deficient" (which rarely comes up in this context). The report also includes a brief interpretation by the test giver.

Such standardized testing of very small children -- often as young as three -- has sparked controversy among educators and researchers nationwide, not least because young children are pretty unreliable test subjects. Experts say a quality IQ test is able to account for only 25 percent of a 4-year-old's later academic achievement. In other words, there is another 75 percent worth of factors important to school success that the test cannot measure: creativity, motivation, family life, personality. By contrast, an adult's aptitude is believed to be tested with 50 to 60 percent accuracy. Furthermore, preschoolers' reactions to the test situation are notoriously inconsistent: a child may be engaged one day (or hour) and resistant the next.

"Young children do not test well," says Elaine Joseph, director of Newcomb Nursery. "Just knowing some of the kids [that schools] reject, I know they are rejecting some extraordinary children."

On a recent morning at Newcomb College Nursery School, a group of parents are gathered to hear Tulane University psychologist Jeffrey Lockman speak about the process of testing young children for admission to private pre-K and kindergarten programs. Lockman does his best to be reassuring. One mother comments that she was a bit bothered by what she called the mystery of the admissions process: testing that takes place behind closed doors, to be used in unspecified ways by admissions committees whose methods she knows little about. Another parent, a recent immigrant to this country, asks how best to prepare her 4-year-old for IQ testing. Should she drill him on the alphabet and numbers? Teach him how to work a maze?

The answer: read to him, do puzzles, take him to the zoo. Make sure he is in a good nursery school. Advises Lockman: "Be a good parent."

In New Orleans, as elsewhere, IQ tests can create a great deal of stress -- and a certain amount of jockeying for advantage -- among parents anxious for their children to go to a particular school. Bonnie Talbot, preschool coordinator at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, sees this all the time: "Parents that are so stressed -- is she going to get into this school? Is she going to do well on the test? I feel very sorry for them, because I think they need to free themselves from some of this stress. But I think a lot of it is self-imposed stress, it's socially imposed stress, it's peer-imposed stress."

When this stress trickles down to children, it leads some researchers to identify early testing as a factor in what UNO early childhood expert Judith Kieff calls "programming childhood out of children." Asserts Kieff: "A 4-year-old should be playing."

Deborah Pavur, associate director of Newcomb, agrees. "As teachers in the early childhood arena we are very protective of childhood as childhood, and children have a right to their childhood," she says. "What they really need to be doing [at age three] is learning how to play with another person."

Some parents begin to fret about private school admissions very early on, trying to ensure that their 2-year-olds attend the "right" nursery school. And local early childhood professionals report encounters with parents trying to give their kids an edge in the admissions process -- by signing toddlers up for speech therapy when they are developing normally, hiring tutors, or even by purchasing a copy of the test online.

"I know there are some parents who are trying to prepare their kids," says one local educator who asked not to be named. "I don't know who they're using, as far as private tutors or whatever -- I don't know. To me it's so foolish, because it's almost self-defeating. You're not trying to do this to hurt the child, you're trying to get an idea of what their capabilities are, and if you're [coaching them], you're robbing the test of its validity, and so why are you even testing them? It's an exercise in futility it seems to me."

And when kids don't do well in the admissions process, things can turn ugly. Another local educator encountered a mother so furious that her child hadn't done well on the WPPSI that she threatened to sue the school and get the tester's license revoked. The parents took their child to another tester a month later and her score went up considerably -- a miracle, the educator says wryly.

"There are testers and testers, you know. And even though it's supposed to be an objective instrument, there are some testers in the city who consistently give them a very high IQ. I mean we know if this tester has done this test, their IQ is usually about 10 to 20 points above what some of the others are."

Exactly how private school admissions boards use the WPPSI remains something of a mystery to local parents who've been through the process. Alice Lessing reports some difficulty getting admissions people to come clean about how they make their decisions. "What they say is that it's a stool on several legs -- testing, observation, teacher questionnaires -- and that they're looking for a good fit [between child and school]."

Specifics on how they achieve that fit are hard to come by, though. "They'll never tell you. Several schools said stuff like, 'Well, you know, we really work with the individual.' They wouldn't give any particular answer."

Newcomb's Elaine Joseph believes that testing is sometimes used to exclude certain types of children. "You know the saying, 'Leave no child behind?' We're leaving them behind in droves when we select students with no problems who attend when the teacher asks them, and who get high grades. With children who test the environment, test expectations, go against the grain a bit, we have no idea what to do when it's time for these kids to go to school. These are the great people of the future."

Joseph believes that some schools pay a price when they seek to exclude these more rambunctious kids. "They don't get a diverse mix of kids in terms of attitude, character. They should randomly take kids until slots are filled. First come, first served. That would be revolutionary."

School officials say they aren't seeking to screen out average and low-scoring applicants, and testing advocates insist that if the tests are used properly, they are not harmful to children's prospects.

Bonnie Talbot at Sacred Heart maintains that neither low test scores nor rambunctiousness disqualify a child for admission to the school's pre-K and kindergarten programs: "We may screen out some children who we can see have very serious problems -- a difficult speech disability, or something with their hearing or maybe vision areas -- that we know they're going to have trouble succeeding in our curriculum."

But there is no policy stating that low scorers need not apply. "There are some children who maybe don't do as well verbally, or maybe we can see they have some fine motor difficulties, but have so much other potential that you just cannot exclude them -- there are often children that you think, maybe our school can really be the help for this child that she may need."

One or two New Orleans independent schools don't use the WPPSI, although they are still far from first come, first served. St. George's Episcopal School Admissions Director Elaine Eichberger says a developmental screening gives the school the information it needs. Intelligence tests, she says, aren't very accurate. "Parents put a lot of weight on the test, and kids are too little for that," she says.

Another school, St. Paul's Episcopal, dispenses with standardized tests of any kind, preferring to rely on observations of the child and information gathered from parents and nursery school teachers -- techniques that most other schools use in conjunction with testing.

"We don't want to cause stress, which testing can do," says St. Paul's Admissions Director Pat Hemenway. "We feel like our method works, so why should we do a psychological test if that won't give us more information? IQ testing is an instrument that doesn't really answer the questions. Who can best do that? Experienced educators and parents."

Then why do other schools feel they need the test? The answer depends on whom you ask. "With the WPPSI you get a much more objective viewpoint," says Sacred Heart's Talbot. "We try to form as complete and accurate a profile of each child as we can."

Newcomb's Deborah Pavur praises the willingness of schools to work with her staff in the admission process, but she remains generally skeptical of the testing process. "The party line seems to be that they use the test because they have a limited number of spots and they are trying to tease out children that will do well in their accelerated curriculum. I think some schools may be looking for children who will perform well, will do well, and will keep those numbers up, and then they'll have National Merit finalists and all of this."

Her colleague, Elaine Joseph, puts it even more bluntly. "I don't understand why they use it, unless they're trying to get a certain IQ level in their student population. It seems to me they are trying to weed out something."

The most consistent criticism leveled at standardized testing of preschoolers is that it is not reliable. Tulane University's Jeffrey Lockman believes that New Orleans schools generally use testing appropriately, but he still advises caution.

"What needs to be recognized is that testing at a young age is not as predictive," he says. "A lower score doesn't necessarily mean that a child won't do well in school. It is inconsistent to think that the test alone will tell you how a child will do -- that invalidates the role of the school in educating the child."

It is also important to keep in mind, Lockman says, that "some skills are developmentally linked. Children develop at different rates in different abilities. This doesn't necessarily mean that the child who is slower in rate of development is slower in intellectual ability."

Those who work with preschoolers point to their changeability, distractibility and emotionality, all factors that may interfere with accurate testing. "I think it is impossible for a 4-year-old to fail an IQ test," says Deborah Pavur, at Newcomb. "I think what happens all too frequently is that the test fails the child. The child may not want to tell you, the child may not like you, the child may not know who you are and may not want to talk to you, and may not be answering the questions for which they very well know the answers."

Local parent Megan Shaw says teachers recommended her 5-year-old daughter Annie for gifted and talented testing. Annie scored high on the verbal portion of the WPPSI, but rated an "average" on performance. Shaw felt that the one-and-a-half-hour test was too long for a 5-year-old, and that her daughter had gotten tired. When she brought up her concerns with the tester, she was told simply that the test had accurately gauged Annie's strengths and weaknesses.

Shaw still questions this assessment. "Her father overheard the tester say, 'Do you want to put together the puzzle?' 'No, I don't want to put together the puzzle.' Not that she couldn't. But at that point she was an hour into it -- past an hour -- and for a 5-year-old that's a very long time. When I showed the score to her [nursery] teachers who had known her for four years, they said, 'You can obviously tell that this standardized measure is not really measuring, because we would have felt that Annie's performance would have been much higher.' Because they had known her for four years."

A good tester, counter school administrators, recognizes and makes allowances for the limitations of both test and child. "A good test giver puts it all in perspective," says Lockman. Local tester Gayle Baer maintains that after 20 years of giving IQ tests to small children, it is obvious to her when a child is having a bad day, or if she is simply not developmentally ready (rather than mentally unequipped) to take the test. "When there is a problem with the child like sickness or tiredness, it's usually across the board [in the scores]," Baer says. "If they're less willing to do perceptual, it might be because of generalized weakness [in that area]."

Gayle Baer is one of a number of local psychologists who give the WPPSI. She says that the tests provide very specific guidelines of what constitutes a good answer, but allows that there is some subjectivity in the scoring, particularly on the verbal section. The interpretive portion of Baer's report offers her opinion as to whether the child could function in an "accelerated" program, and notes of there are any "deficits" -- such as learning disabilities -- to monitor for in the coming years.

Alan Kaufman, a Yale psychologist who develops and writes about intelligence tests, believes that IQ testing is essential to placing a child in the right school. He argues that just as a test can fail to recognize some of a child's qualities, a good tester can also tease out hidden abilities that even the child's parents and teachers might not have been aware of.

For Kaufman, the nonverbal element of the test is the key to uncovering hidden talents, because it relies less on achievement (what the child knows) than on innate ability. "The right use is to say, 'Wow, here are some strengths that this child has that no one saw before,'" he says. "This often happens with young children. If they're articulate, we think they're smart. If they're shy, we think they're not smart."

In the end, even parents who don't cheat or threaten to sue may want to know what relation IQ evaluations have to their children's long-term prospects. The good news is that while poor test results may hinder preferred primary school admissions, they may very well turn out to be meaningless in the long run.

In 1987, Margaret Grandy's 5-year-old son took the WPPSI for admission to private school. "He had an immediate dislike to the tester," Margaret recalls. "As he was leaving, he stood in the exit door and said, 'You don't like me and I don't like you and I hope never to see you again.' I knew right there that we would not have a good result."

It turned out that Grandy's son's scores were both well above average, but he did better on verbal than performance. Because of this discrepancy, the tester said in her evaluation, the child would have "learning problems." Grandy had her son reevaluated by another tester who said there was nothing wrong with him, but the school said that it anticipated the boy to have reading and behavior problems, based on the original evaluation. Grandy's first-choice school rejected the child on the basis of the evaluation.

"The tester was operating on a personal dislike of my child," Grandy says. "These evaluations are subjective. You could take a score that indicated the child was fine, but if the tester has had a lack of cooperation with the child -- my child was probably incredibly difficult with this woman -- you are going to say this child has difficulties. We used a different tester with my other two children, and I was very happy with her."

The end result? The boy was accepted to another private school, one that does not use an IQ test in admissions. He never did develop reading problems: he is a senior in high school this year and plans to major in creative writing in one of the top-tier liberal arts colleges he's applied to. He is also a National Merit Scholarship Program semifinalist.

'I think it is impossible for a 4-year-old to fail an IQ test,' says Deborah Pavur, associate director of Newcomb Nursery (left), pictured with director Elaine Joseph. 'I think what happens all too frequently is that the test fails the child.' - TRACIE MORRIS
  • Tracie Morris
  • 'I think it is impossible for a 4-year-old to fail an IQ test,' says Deborah Pavur, associate director of Newcomb Nursery (left), pictured with director Elaine Joseph. 'I think what happens all too frequently is that the test fails the child.'

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