Jennifer Dev is a freelance journalist and digital media fellow at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Tanya Duprey was seated in the cafeteria of P.S./I.S. 54 in the Bronx on a Saturday in January. Her daughter Allison, 4, sat next to her, drawing a picture of a spiky purple caterpillar with neon orange hair. Duprey has a habit of biting the side of her lip when she’s nervous, but now she was also smoothing her dark bangs down over her face every few seconds. “It’s so nerve-wracking. Now that they’re about to call her in, I’m like, did we do enough?” she said.
At the other lunch tables, more anxious parents waited for New York City Department of Education officials to call their children in to take an exam.They were all hoping for a highly coveted spot in the city’s gifted and talented kindergarten program. The 45-minute test would determine whether their children made the cut.
Requiring four-year-olds to take standardized tests is a relatively new development in New York City, one begun in 2007 to standardize gifted and talented admissions citywide. Previously, the process varied from district to district and could include in-class assessments, interviews, and teacher observations. The tests were meant to create fairness and uniformity in allocating seats for the 2007-2008 school year, but when the evidence suggested they had had the opposite effect, the city this year instituted yet another new test.
Allison was among the first to experience it.
As a Hispanic, middle-income parent from the Bronx, Duprey faced an uphill battle getting her daughter into a G&T program. She lives in the borough with the lowest G&T enrollment, she did not enroll her daughter in a test-prep program and she was new to the process. Still, despite the challenges, Duprey said she wanted to try because she believed the program had more resources than the average public school. Her other options included several sought-after charter schools in Manhattan, another steep climb because of competition for a limited number of seats.
New York City's gifted program is highly competitive. After the economic downturn, parents who once might have turned to private schools looked to G&T programs to save money. This means more children are applying even as the department has phased out programs in many lower-income neighborhoods —especially in the Bronx and Brooklyn—where fewer children have qualified since the city began using standardized tests.
In New York City overall, the number of children qualifying for seats has been growing steadily since the exams were put into place. In the school year just ended, according to the D.O.E., the number of kindergarteners eligible for placement reached 4,921, or 34.6 percent of testers. That was the highest it had ever been ― until the results came in for September 2013 placement ― and experts attribute this trend to test prep.
Although the department added almost 400 gifted kindergarten seats citywide in the 2012-2013 school year, for a total of 2,222, to meet rising demand, these changes didn’t alleviate Duprey’s fears. As she watched an administrator lead Allison away by the hand that January afternoon, she sat down and exhaled noisily.
“I feel like crying,” she said. “My hands are shaking.”
Last year, in District 11 in the Bronx where Duprey’s family lives, 375 children tested for gifted kindergarten placement, according to the D.O.E. Of those, 19 percent qualified for placement in a gifted program with a score at the 90th percentile or above; just 3 percent reached the 99th percentile necessary for a shot at admission to one of the five elite citywide gifted-only schools. While in theory a score at the 97th percentile is enough to qualify, in practice, unless a child already has a sibling at a citywide school, a 99th percentile score is necessary to get a seat. D.O.E. numbers show that in the Bronx 4 percent of children scored at the 99th percentile compared to 19 percent of Manhattan children.
Information Session Confounds
Before Duprey’s daughter sat for the exam in January, Duprey attended a gifted and talented information session hosted by the D.O.E., one of five held throughout the city’s different boroughs last fall.
At the entrance, smiling D.O.E. officials passed out handbooks that explained the admission process and included some sample test questions. Two speakers from the department rehashed the information in the handbook and on the D.O.E.’s site, a dry and confusing set of rules on testing, eligibility, and application. Halfway through, despite several babies crying noisily, three people were asleep.
When the time came to talk about test prep, however, ears perked up.
“Do we recommend test prep?” asked the D.O.E.’s first presenter, Grace Gonzalez, reading a parent’s question from an index card.“No, we don’t.” She said children should not feel stressed about the test.
But some parents left the information session feeling conflicted. Bronx parent Ely DeJesus had enrolled her daughter Madison in a “very expensive” eight-week session at test-prep center BrightKidsNYC well before the info session.
“I wish I had known,” DeJesus said of the D.O.E.’s recommendation not to prep. “I did it out of my own anxiety. I wish I hadn’t done it.”
Duprey, who left halfway through the presentation, was angry.
“They tell you you can’t prep them–that’s absolute crap,” she said. “I believe that test prep is critical.”
Of the study material in the D.O.E.’s handbook, Duprey later called it “a joke. An absolute joke.”
After her daughter flew through the few pages provided by the D.O.E., Duprey did her own research and found additional resources through several websites, including TestingMom.com, where she said she paid about $70 for three months of access and downloaded lots of prep material. Still, she didn’t go as far as some parents.
“I wasn’t going to put in what I heard was $1,000, even $1,500, to prep a 4-year-old,” she says of the private tutoring companies.“I’d rather put that money into her college savings.”
On the night before the exam, Duprey tried her best to convince Allison to pay attention to the Naglieri test prep materials.“Look at the pictures below. One of the pictures is different and doesn’t belong. Can you point to the one that doesn’t belong?”
Allison convulsed into a fit of giggles. Duprey reached over and gently collected her daughter in her arms. “I need you to point and stick. Point and stick. If you move your finger, it’s like you got the answer wrong,” she explained, eyes intent on her daughter. Allison eventually calmed down and tried a few more problems before Duprey let her watch some TV.
“I am just ready for this to be over,” Duprey said, as she sank into the couch.
Results Are In
On Saturday, April 6, Duprey, with Allison sitting in her lap, opened an email from the D.O.E.
“Yep, she’s not eligible,” she said, deflating. “She scored in the 73rd percentile.”
She shook her head.“In no way can they assess in 40 minutes what this child is capable of,” she said.“There’s no way.”
The next Monday,the D.O.E. released the scores publicly: of the 36,012 children tested this year, 9,020 had qualified for seats, down from 9,644 who qualified a year earlier. The numbers seemed to be in line with the D.O.E.’s expectations that fewer children would qualify due to the new test. But in an awful twist, 10 days after sending out the gifted and talented test results, the D.O.E. announced that the testing company, Pearson, had messed up. Errors in thousands of exams impacted 4,732 kids, or 13 percent of those who took the test.
Nearly 2,700 students who didn’t previously qualify were found eligible for gifted programs. The updated results showed the opposite of what the D.O.E had hoped: more students qualified for gifted and talented programs this year. Weeks later, another error was discovered, and even more students qualified. D.O.E. data showed 32.4 percent of children in grades K-3 taking the exam qualified, up from this year’s 24.5 percent.
The increased numbers of children qualifying for gifted programs suggest that the new test may not have been as difficult as anticipated, or that it was in fact more susceptible to test preparation than experts believed.
D.O.E. spokesperson Devon Puglia said the number of gifted kindergarten classes will increase from 98 to about 108 next year, enough for "roughly 2,700 G&T spaces," an increase of nearly 500 from last year’s class.
The day after the announcement of Pearson’s first mistake was made, Duprey received a call from the D.O.E. saying Allison’s score was unaffected by the error.
“But I’m happy to know that many more deserving kids will get in,” she said. A month later, Duprey learned Allison had been accepted into her first-choice charter school, Success Academy in Hell’s Kitchen.
“I burst into tears,” she said. “This whole process has definitely been a rollercoaster ride. I am so glad it’s over.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.