In a reversal of course, fewer students took the exams this year to get into the city's popular gifted and talented classes and the number of students who earned top scores dropped precipitously.
Just over 36,000 children took the exams earlier this year compared to about 39,000 last year, a change from the steady rise of previous years. The exams are open to students entering Kindergarten through third grade.
Students need to score at or above the 90th percentile to be eligible for a seat in a G&T; program. About a quarter of all tested students were eligible for seats, the same as last year. But fewer children were eligible for the more competitive, citywide programs that require a higher score (97th percentile or higher).
Just 921 test-takers scored at the 99th percentile compared to 1607 last year. Still, because the five citywide programs are so competitive, even a score in the 99th percentile isn't a guarantee of one of the few hundred seats.
The percentage of students who scored at the highest levels fell after the city changed one of the two exams that are used to determine eligibility. Officials said they wanted to level the playing field, so kids whose families send them to test prep classes wouldn't have as much of an advantage.
But that change didn't lead to many more eligible students in low-income areas. Just about 10 percent of the tested students in the South Bronx (Districts 7 and 9) were eligible for any gifted and talented programs, compared to 40 percent of those in Manhattan's district 2, which includes the east side and downtown. More students in District 2 were eligible last year, almost 50 percent, before the change in the exam.
And for the second year in a row, even fewer students took the exams in District 7. Just 70 incoming kindergarten students took the exam, 7 of whom scored high enough to be eligible, compared to 85 in 2012 and 122 in 2011.
Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children of New York City, said those numbers are troublesome.
"There is still a massive access gap between higher- and lower-income districts," she said. "If the city is really serious about broadening access to G&T; programs for low-income children, they clearly have to do more than changing the test every few years. They need to look closely at outreach, process, and preparation, plus go into the communities with low participation and find out why more students don’t apply."
But the Department of Education stood by its efforts.
"Our strategy is long-term and comprehensive – and it starts with pre-k," said spokesman Devon Puglia. "We are maintaining a high bar for gifted and talented programs while expanding access to cognitively challenging experiences in early childhood. We’re making progress - our creation of 4,000 new full-day pre-k seats this fall is an example of that – but as always, we have more work to do."
Families have until later this spring to apply to gifted and talented programs.
Brooklyn mom Erum Nadeen, whose five year-old daughter scored in the 98th percentile, said she gave her child a few sample questions to prepare for the tests but didn't enroll her in any test prep classes. She isn't sure if she'll send her child to her zoned school in District 13 or apply to a G&t; program.
"I think it's a little crazy," she said, laughing. "I think ideally, in an ideal world, it would be great to have everyone's local schools be great and not worrying over this."