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The Junior Meritocracy

Illustration by Dienstelle 75  

Let’s start with the most basic problem: School starts in kindergarten. No matter how a child is doing at that moment, no matter where that child is in the great swoop of his or her developmental arc, that’s when parents send their kids off to school. Given this very concrete constraint, standardized tests seem as fair a means as any to find gifted 4-year-olds—if not the fairest, considering the city’s tremendous cultural and socioeconomic diversity. That one test-taking experience may be the sole experience all kids share, and their scores the sole application datum that’s neither prejudicial (like a family’s net worth) or subjective (like recommendations from nursery schools). Unfortunately, not all city schools use the same tests, which means that first-time parents, already overwhelmed by the usual formalities of school enrollment, are forced to cut through a smog of acronyms. New York City public schools use the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, or OLSAT, to help determine which students are eligible for their gifted-and-talented programs. The private schools use a modified version of the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, or WPPSI-III, pronounced “whipsy.” (Yet because the Educational Records Bureau administers it—for a cost of $495—it is still better known to some parents as the ERB.) Hunter, because it operates under the auspices of Hunter College rather than the Department of Education, uses the fifth edition of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, or SB-5, to narrow down its first round of applicants. How these tests differ is mainly a question of emphasis and style: The OLSAT looks much more like an actual school exam—it’s administered by a licensed teacher, answered in multiple-choice bubbles in a workbook, and a bit more biased in content toward school readiness, like following verbal directions—while the WPPSI and SB-5 are IQ tests, interpreted by psychologists and more biased toward abstract reasoning. But the truth is, all three are pretty similar, at least at this level. As W. Steven Barnett, co-director of Rutgers’ National Institute for Early Education Research, notes: “Odds are they’re all going to have kids do something with triangles.”

Those who are bullish on intelligence tests argue they’re “pure” gauges of a child’s mental agility—immune to shifts in circumstance, immutable over the course of a lifetime. Yet everything we know about this subject suggests that there are considerable fluctuations in children’s IQs. In 1989, the psychologist Lloyd Humphreys, a pioneer in the field of psychometrics, came out with an analysis based on a longitudinal twin study in Louisville, Kentucky, whose subjects were regularly IQ-tested between ages 4 and 15. By the end of those eleven years, the average change in their IQs was ten points. That’s a spread with significant educational consequences. A 4-year-old with an IQ of 85 would likely qualify for remedial education. But that same child would no longer require it if, later on, his IQ shoots up to 95. A 4-year-old with an IQ of 125 would fall below the 130 cutoff for the G&T programs in most cities. Yet if, at some point after that, she scores a 135, it will have been too late. She’ll already have missed the benefit of an enhanced curriculum.

These fluctuations aren’t as odd as they seem. IQ tests are graded on a bell curve, with the average always being 100. (Definitions vary, but essentially, people with IQs of 110 to 120 are considered smart; 120 to 130, very smart; 130 is the favorite cutoff for gifted programs; and 140 starts to earn people the label of genius.) If a child’s IQ goes down, it doesn’t mean he or she has stopped making intellectual progress. It simply means that this child has made slower progress than some of his or her peers; the child’s relative standing has gone down. As one might imagine, kids go through cognitive spurts, just as they go through growth spurts. One of the classic investigations into the stability of childhood IQ, a 1973 study by the University of Pittsburgh’s Robert McCall and UC–San Diego’s Mark Appelbaum and colleagues, looked at 80 children who’d taken IQ tests roughly once a year between the ages of 2½ and 18. It showed that children’s intellectual trajectories were marked by slow increases or decreases, with inflection points around the ages of 6, 10, and 14, during which scores more sharply turned up or down. And when were IQs the least stable? Before the age of 6. Yet in New York we track most kids based on test scores they got at 4. (And we may not even be the worst offenders: As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman note in their new book, NurtureShock, there are cities with preschools that require IQ tests of 2-year-olds.) “How can you lock children into a specialized educational experience at so young an age?” asks McCall. “As soon as you start denying kids early, you penalize them almost progressively. Education and mental achievement builds on itself. It’s cumulative.”