As a New York City teacher, I screened 4-year-olds for gifted programs. Here is what I learned.

When I was a classroom teacher in Brooklyn, I was usually focused on that role. But for two years, I also worked on the weekends to administer tests to 4-year-olds.

Melanie Kletter

Those children had parents who wanted to see whether they could be eligible for the city’s system of gifted and talented programs, where admission is generally based on a screening exam given to preschoolers. Now, a task force charged with coming up with ideas to decrease segregation in city schools has recommended phasing out the programs, in which black and Hispanic students make up less than a quarter of enrollment, compared to about 70% citywide. The recommendations have ignited a citywide debate — and caused me to reflect on the complicated feelings I have about the testing process and the role I played in it.

At the time I was administering these tests, I was teaching second grade at a public school in District 15 in Brooklyn. I thought I was well aware of what it was like to work with young students. I quickly found out that dealing with kids who are 4 years old is quite different from working with students who are 7 years old.

For children at this age, getting ready to enter kindergarten, teachers give the test one-on-one. The tests took at least an hour to give each child, and for many of them it took much longer. I spent a lot of that time refocusing the child since kids at that age are easily distracted. Kids often wanted to talk about their dog or their family or soccer or anything other than what we were supposed to be discussing. Sitting in an unfamiliar room with an adult they had never met, possibly having been told repeatedly how important this test was, many kids broke down in tears. I spent a lot of my test administration time chatting quietly with kids and smiling at them so they would feel less afraid.

Many of the children taking these tests are in pre-K or day care programs, but some have never been in school. Many of the kids I tested could barely sit still, which is completely unsurprising and also developmentally appropriate given their age. In the training I received, we discussed ways to help calm the kids down and get them to focus. As I administered these tests, it was clear to me that there were some kids who came with advantages. Children who already had school experiences — and thus practice responding to redirection — got a boost. So did students who had received any kind of test prep, which gave them prior experience about the kinds of questions that were being asked and what to expect from me. Some kids clearly had received no training or test prep and were very confused by what I was asking them to do.

I also quickly discovered that unlike other exams students take later in their school careers, there is ample room for test proctors to use their own discretion. For example, I was surprised to find out that I had to fill in the bubbles on the scoring sheet for each child. It is assumed that kids this age who are applying for gifted schools cannot properly color in a bubble, so after asking each question, I then asked kids to point to what they thought was the right answer and I would fill in the bubble for them. I realized there was some room for personal judgment for those of us administering these exams. What if I had good intentions and there was a kid I knew and wanted to help her do well on this test? I could have easily filled in the bubbles correctly for her. Or if there was a child I didn’t want to succeed, I could fill in the wrong answer for him. Neither scenario was ever true for me, of course, but even imagining them made me feel distressed that such an important test could have its results swayed so easily.

I knew that the stakes were very high for many of the kids taking these tests. I knew that some families might not want to send their child to their zoned school, and there were many reasons for that. As I walked students back into the auditorium after administering the tests, many parents eagerly looked to me for some kind of sign about how their child had done. There were many parents I wished I could tell right then that their child had completely bombed the tests and they should forget about gifted programs, but I wasn’t able to share that kind of information.

A few years ago, my older daughter took the gifted test. Even though I knew exactly what these tests entailed and what I should do to prepare her, I did very little prep work with her. We live in one of the city’s few unzoned choice districts, and in these districts, families aren’t guaranteed a spot at the school or schools they most want. My husband and I wanted my daughter to take the test to give us more options. But I didn’t want to waste my time or hers on test prep, which, in my opinion, isn’t appropriate for young kids and also goes against the point of these tests. She didn’t make the cutoff, and I was OK with that. We ended up sending her to a school in our district that felt like the right fit for her.

Even years after administering these tests, I have philosophical misgivings about the entire process. It feels wrong that one set of tests should have such a big impact, especially when students are so young and lack focus due to their age. I know that much of this process is really measuring how much test preparation a child has had, and whether he or she can sit still and focus for an extended period of time.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has responded to the criticism of gifted programs by saying that a single screening exam for 4-year-olds is “a real concern.” I am not sure what the best way is to evaluate young students and determine if they should be in a gifted program, but having been complicit in the city’s current strategy, I know it definitely needs to change.

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