Tanya Duprey was seated in the cafeteria of P.S. 54 in the Bronx on a Saturday last January. Her daughter Allison, 4, sat next to her with paper and crayons, 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.
Along the other tables in the lunchroom, 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 New York City’s gifted and talented kindergarten program, and the 45-minute test would determine whether their children would make the cut.
Requiring 4-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.
White and Asian-American children, as well as children from the wealthiest New York City districts, were always disproportionately represented in gifted programs, but in recent years Hispanic and African-American children and children from poorer schools districts have seen their chances of getting in even further reduced.
In the 2012-2013 school year, according to the D.O.E., Hispanic children comprised 41 percent of New York’s elementary student population but held only 12 percent of the total gifted seats available in both the citywide schools and district programs. Likewise, African-Americans made up 24 percent of the school population but held only 15 percent of the gifted seats. By contrast, Asian students made up 16 percent of the school population and held 32 percent of the gifted seats, and white students made up 17 percent of the population and held 38 percent of the gifted seats.
As a Hispanic, middle-income parent from the Bronx, Duprey’s experience this year was typical of other parents in her situation trying to navigate the city’s gifted admissions system. After thoroughly researching her options, Duprey was aware of the challenges, but chose to put herself and her daughter through the application process because she believed the program offered access to more resources than the average public school.
Like many parents, she also saw the city’s five specialized schools for gifted children, and the district gifted programs embedded in 83 schools throughout the city, as a possible escape from a poorly performing zoned school. Her other options included several sought-after charter schools in Manhattan, but she knew her chances of getting in were slim because of the steep competition for seats.
The gifted program is highly competitive. After the economic downturn, parents who once might have turned to private schools looked to gifted 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 over all, 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 the newfound prevalence of test prep.
Though the department added almost 400 gifted kindergarten seats citywide from the 2011-2012 to the 2012-2013 school year―to 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 due to the small number of seats available. 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.
While 35 percent of all New York City children tested for the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for gifted kindergarten programs, the inter-borough differences were stark: 49 percent of all Manhattan children qualified; only 18 percent of Bronx children did. Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island fell between the two extremes, with 33, 31 and 25 percent of test-takers qualifying, respectively, according the D.O.E. It’s no surprise, then, that three of the five citywide schools are in Manhattan, and the remaining two in Brooklyn and Queens.
Racial and economic disparities have always existed in gifted programs. In 1988, a longitudinal study by the U.S. Department of Education showed a nationwide trend: students whose families’ socioeconomic status placed them in the top quartile of the population were approximately five times more likely to be in gifted programs than students from families in the bottom quartile.
In New York City, the move to standardized tests exacerbated this trend.
James Borland, a professor of gifted education at Teachers College, Columbia University, was dumbfounded by the city’s move to standardization, which he called “a real quick-and-dirty approach.”
“The process is built in such a way that just magnifies the inequities that are inherent in our society,” he said. “If you want to come up with a more equitable process that provides opportunities for all kids in these programs, not just kids from certain demographic groups, then you can’t have a purely test-driven approach.”
* * *
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 shouldn’t 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 Bright Kids NYC 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.”
She isn’t alone. TestingMom.com is one of several newly established businesses riding the wave of test prep demand and it is growing partly because parents feel that they’re not getting enough resources or information – or test material. “Me personally, I’m not going to put a 4-year-old in a situation cold-turkey,” says Michael McCurdy, one of the founders. 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.”
Middle- and upper-middle class parents, says Borland, are “much more wired into the system.” And many are willing to pay thousands of dollars to get their children ready for the exams.
“They’re aware that these programs exist, they know about the testing and they get their kids involved,” Borland said. “Not all families do, or can do, that.”
In response to growing concerns about racial inequalities in the system, this year the D.O.E. replaced the Bracken School Readiness Assessment with a different standardized test, the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test. Department officials had hoped this would help even the playing field because nonverbal tests are harder to prep for, according to testing experts, making it more difficult for parents to use tutoring to game the system. Yet despite these claims, many parents and experts remain skeptical.
The Naglieri is a matrix test: children are presented a 2 X 2 or 3 X 3 matrix with one item missing, and are instructed to find the shape that completes the problem. “It’s very hard,” says Borland.
Some research supports the idea that nonverbal tests are better at identifying disadvantaged students who are gifted. Other research says the Naglieri’s claim of being “culture-fair” is “implausible” and “extravagant.”
Testing companies reacted quickly to reports that a new test was being administered, and almost immediately prep course offerings began sprouting up for the Naglieri. An 8-to-10 week course can cost well over $1,000.
On the night before the exam, Duprey tried her best to convince Allison to pay attention to the Naglieri test prep materials she had printed out from TestingMom. “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.
* * *
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 “I suppose you’re asking yourself, how is this even possible with the addition of the much more difficult NNAT-2 test,” Michael McCurdy, writing on his blog, asked parents. “Yes, I have the same question myself.”
Demographic information won’t be available until students enroll this fall, so it remains to be seen whether the Naglieri had any effect on the racial imbalance. D.O.E. numbers show that the imbalance between the boroughs, however, persists: 52 percent of Manhattan children qualified for gifted kindergarten placement this time around, a 3 percentage point increase; and 20 percent of Bronx children, up 2 percentage points. Brooklyn and Queens saw more dramatic increases, with 38 and 37 percent of children tested qualifying, respectively, up from 33 and 31 percent last year. Staten Island was the only borough where percentages dipped slightly, with 22 percent of children qualifying compared to last year’s 25 percent, though its applicant pool of under 100 is just a fraction of the size of those in the other four boroughs.
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. Though many more might have qualified, given the limited number of spots, eligibility isn’t a guarantee of a seat, and there are sure to be many disappointed households. 5,390 children were deemed eligible for either a citywide or a district gifted program and 4,520 sent in applications for the 2013-2014 school year, yet the D.O.E only sent out 3,097 offers, down from 3,403 last year.
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. New York City’s gifted program keeps on growing, and will likely continue to do so – and persist in its racial imbalance – unless the issues raised by the standardized testing and test preparation are addressed.
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.”