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The Junior Meritocracy

Should a child’s fate be sealed by an exam he takes at the age of 4? Why kindergarten-admission tests are worthless, at best.

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Skylar Shafran, a turquoise headband on her brunette head and a pink princess shirt on her string-bean frame, is standing on a chair in her living room, shifting from left foot to right. She has already gulped down a glass of orange juice and nibbled on some crackers; she has also demonstrated, with extemporaneous grace, the ability to pick up Hello Kitty markers with her toes. For more than an hour, she has been answering questions to a mock version of an intelligence test commonly known to New York parents as the ERB. Almost every prestigious private elementary school in the city requires that prospective kindergartners take it. Skylar’s parents, Liz and Jay, are pretty sure they know where they’re sending their daughter to school next year, but they figure it can’t hurt to get a sense of where she sits in the long spectrum of precocious New York children. And so, although it wasn’t cheap—$350—they’ve hired someone to find out. Skylar has thus far borne this process with cheerful patience and determination. But every 4-year-old has her limits.

“What is an umbrella?” asks the evaluator, a psychology graduate student in her mid-twenties.

“To keep me dry.”

“And what is a book?”

“Something you read.”

“What is a house?”

Skylar squirms, teeters a bit.

“A house?” the tester repeats.

Skylar looks at her mother. “I have to go pee.”

Later, when the evaluation is over, Liz confesses she’s ambivalent about inviting a stranger into her home to assess her 4-year-old and even more ambivalent about the idea of prepping her for a standardized test, should it turn out she needs preparation. “It’s just that I want choices for her,” she says. “It’s an immigrant mentality. You want what’s best for your kid.”

The beauty of a meritocracy is that it is not, at least in theory, a closed system. With the right amount of pluck and hard work, a person should be able to become whoever he or she is supposed to be. Only in an aristocracy is a child’s fate determined before it is born.

Yet in New York, it turns out that an awful lot is still determined by a child’s 5th birthday. Nearly every selective elementary school in the city, whether it’s public or private, requires standardized exams for kindergarten admission, some giving them so much weight they won’t even consider applicants who score below the top 3 percent. If a child scores below this threshold, it hardly spells doom. But if a child manages to vault over it, and in turn gets into one of these selective schools, it can set him or her on a successful glide path for life.

Consider, for instance, Hunter College Elementary School, perhaps the most competitive publicly funded school in the city. (This year, there were 36 applicants for each slot.) Four-year-olds won’t even be considered for admission unless their scores begin in the upper range of the 98th percentile of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, which costs $275 to take. But if they’re accepted and successfully complete third grade (few don’t), they’ll be offered admission to Hunter College High School. And since 2002, at least 25 percent of Hunter’s graduating classes have been admitted to Ivy League schools. (In 2006 and 2007, that number climbed as high as 40.) Or take, as another example, Trinity School. In 2008, 36 percent of its graduates went to Ivy League schools. More than a third of those classes started there in kindergarten. Thirty percent of Dalton’s graduates went to Ivies between 2005 and 2009, as did 39 percent of Collegiate’s, and 34 percent of Horace Mann’s. Many of these lucky graduates wouldn’t have been able to go to these Ivy League feeders to begin with, if they hadn’t aced an exam just before kindergarten. And of course these advantages reverberate into the world beyond.

Given the stakes, it’s hardly a surprise that New Yorkers with means and aspirations for their children would go to great lengths to help them. Rather, what’s surprising is that a single test, taken at the age of 4, can have so much power in deciding a child’s fate in the first place. The fact is, 4 is far too young an age to reach any conclusions about the prospects of a child’s mind. Even administrators who use these exams—indeed, especially the administrators who use these exams—say they’re practically worthless as predictors of future intelligence. “At information meetings,” says Steve Nelson, head of the famously progressive Calhoun School, “I’ll often ask a room full of parents when their children started to walk.” Invariably, their replies form a perfect bell curve: a few at 9 and 10 months, most at 12 or 13, a few as late as 15 to 18. “And then I’ll ask: ‘What would you think if you were walking down the street, and you saw a parent yanking a 1-year-old child up from the sidewalk, screaming, ‘Walk, damn it?’ ” The same, he says, is true of a system that insists a child perform well on a test at 4 years of age. “Early good testers don’t make better students,” he tells me, “any more than early walkers make better runners.”


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