It’s not even springtime in New York City but it’s already time for parents of pre-schoolers to start panicking about their child’s first entrée into the NYC school system, public or private. Unlike in those golden days of yore (you remember, yore, right?) you don’t just drop your 5-year-old off at the local kindergarten with a lunch box and vaccination records. First comes the testing. Yes, testing.
Whether you’re looking to get into the best private or have your little one placed in a public gifted and talented program, thereby avoiding your local so-so elementary, the kids have to sit down in front of a strange adult and answer some questions to measure their intelligence. It turns out though, while acing those tests will get your kiddo on the “right” private school track, it’s not an accurate measure of your child’s intelligence. Not by a long shot.
Chance figures more prominently into high scores—a good night’s sleep, comfort with the tester—and lucky guesses on tough questions are worth more points than answers to midrange questions. In 2006, David Lohman, a psychologist at the University of Iowa, co-authored a paper called “Gifted Today but Not Tomorrow?” in the Journal for the Education of the Gifted, demonstrating just how labile “giftedness” is. It notes that only 45 percent of the kids who scored 130 or above on the Stanford-Binet would do so on another, similar IQ test at the same point in time. Combine this with the instability of 4-year-old IQs, and it becomes pretty clear that judgments about giftedness should be an ongoing affair, rather than a fateful determination made at one arbitrary moment in time.
Even more damning, as some of these tests were implemented to give people from every socioeconomic background a fighting chance at those prized K spots, it turns out if your parents can spend a load of money on classes or obtaining black market copies of the test you can juke those scores.
“People have the idea that with these tests you can cancel out socioeconomic background and get to some real thing in the kid,” agrees Nicholas Lemann, dean of the journalism school at Columbia and author of The Big Test, a history of the SAT. “That’s a chimera. If you’re a 4-year-old performing well on these tests, it’s either because you have fabulous genetic material or because you have cultural advantages. But either way, the point is: You’re doing better because of your parents.”
Rather than promoting a meritocracy, in other words, these tests instead retard one. They reflect the world as it’s already stratified—and then perpetuate that same stratification.
“Instead of giving IQ tests, you could just as easily look at Zip Codes and the education levels of the parents to determine who gets the better schooling—you get a very high correlation between IQ and socioeconomic status in the first seven or eight years of life,” says Samuel J. Meisels, assessment expert and president of Chicago’s Erikson Institute, the renowned graduate school in childhood development.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the testing fervor when everyone around you is trying to get some kind of edge. But the pressure placed on a child and parent to land in the grade school that feeds into the high school that feeds into the Ivy Leauge is ridiculous. One would hope with these findings the school admissions will lean less, or not at all, on any of these intelligence tests for the short set. But, as the article also asks, if they’re not going to decide on admissions based on these test results, how will they sort through the thousands of applicants for those few treasured spots?