Making the Early Grade: More City Children Test into Gifted and Talented Programs

A total of 39,330 children took exams to get into gifted and talented programs in New York City's public elementary schools, and 24 percent of them scored high enough to be eligible. That's an increase in both the number of students who applied over last year, and the percentage of them who tested well enough to quality for the coveted programs.

The city's Department of Education released the data after letters were sent to families this month. Students entering kindergarten through second grade are allowed to take the two different screening tests, known as the OLSAT and the BRSA. Students who score in the 97th percentile and above are eligible to attend the most selective citywide gifted and talented programs, which — as the name suggests — draw pupils from all over the city. Those who score between the 90th and 96th percentile are eligible to attend gifted and talented programs in their districts.

The DOE couldn't say why more students scored as highly this year, but it will expand the number of seats, if necessary.

Impact on Waiting Lists

This year, a total of 14,249 incoming kindergarten students took the exams, a 40 percent increase over last year.  More than 4,900 were eligible for either the citywide or district programs. That's a jump from last year when 4000 scored high enough to be eligible.

As usual, gifted and talented admissions should help reduce the current kindergarten waiting lists. A total of 125 schools have waiting lists for children in their local zones, because they had so many applicants. But the city has said waiting lists traditionally decline substantially after families learn whether their children scored high enough to attend gifted and talented programs, because they often choose those instead of their local schools.

In total, 39,330 children took the exams this year compared to 39,160 last year. The number of test-takers has been steadily growing but there was a bigger spike in the number of students making the cut. Twenty-four percent of this year's test-takers were eligible for gifted and talented programs compared to 20 percent last year.

"I think we see a whole range of people applying to take the test from district to district, some more than others," said Department of Education spokesman Frank Thomas. "That’s probably due a whole variety of factors, such as how many families are moving into those districts, young children, etc."

However, a quick look at the breakdown by districts suggests the increase in applicants is driven by students from wealthier neighborhoods — despite efforts to lure more low-income students to take the tests.

Who's Applying

A total of 1,784 incoming kindergarten pupils took the gifted and talented exams in District 2, which spans from Lower Manhattan to the Upper East Side, compared to 1,677 last year. More than half of them scored high enough to be eligible. By contrast, just 85 incoming kindergarten students took the exam in District 7, which includes the South Bronx, compared to 122 last year. And only six of this year's youngest test-takers in District 7 scored high enough to gain a seat.

There were also fewer applicants in Districts 8 and 9 in the Bronx, but many more applicants than last year in Brooklyn's District 15, which includes Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, and District 26 in Queens, which includes Douglaston, Little Neck and Bayside. 

"It doesn't seem like efforts to increase representation from low-income communities are working," said Kim Sweet, Executive Director of the group Advocates for Children of New York.

"Part of the problem is still outreach," she said. "But when students can prep for the test, low-income families have an even greater disadvantage."

DOE's Thomas said, "We continue to focus on growing participation in these programs in traditionally underserved areas around the city. As part of that effort we have opened thousands of pre-k seats in those communities to give children a solid start on their education.”

Parents with the education and means often help prepare their children for the annual tests, even though the students are as young as four years-old.

The Department of Education says this year's data excludes approximately 50 testers that will be hand scored by the testing company Pearson. The city was still finalizing the scores for about 100 students last year when it released the results.