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The Junior Meritocracy


Illustration by Dienstelle 75  

Most researchers in the field of childhood development agree that the minds of nursery-school children are far too raw to be judged. Sally Shaywitz, author of Overcoming Dyslexia, is in the midst of a decades-long study that examines reading development in children. She says she couldn’t even use the reading data she’d collected from first-graders for some of the longitudinal analyses. “It simply wasn’t stable,” she says. I tell her that most New York City schools don’t share this view. “A young brain is a moving target,” she replies. “It should not be treated as if it were fixed.”

Complicating matters further, IQs are least stable at the highest end of the spectrum no matter what age they’re assessed. The explanation for this is simple: There’s more room to fall the higher you go, and hence a greater likelihood that the score will regress toward the mean. Chance figures more prominently into high scores—a good night’s sleep, comfort with the tester—and lucky guesses on tough questions are worth more points than answers to midrange questions. In 2006, David Lohman, a psychologist at the University of Iowa, co-authored a paper called “Gifted Today but Not Tomorrow?” in the Journal for the Education of the Gifted, demonstrating just how labile “giftedness” is. It notes that only 45 percent of the kids who scored 130 or above on the Stanford-Binet would do so on another, similar IQ test at the same point in time. Combine this with the instability of 4-year-old IQs, and it becomes pretty clear that judgments about giftedness should be an ongoing affair, rather than a fateful determination made at one arbitrary moment in time. I wrote to Lohman and asked what percentage of 4-year-olds who scored 130 or above would do so again as 17-year-olds. He answered with a careful regression analysis: about 25 percent.

The implications of this number are pretty startling. They mean that three quarters of the seniors in a gifted program would no longer test into that program if asked to retake an IQ test on graduation day. So I wrote Lohman back: Was he certain about this?

“Yes,” he replied. “Even people who consider themselves well versed in these matters are often surprised to discover how much movement/noise/instability there is even when correlations seem high.” He was careful to note, however, that this doesn’t mean IQ tests have no predictive value per se. After all, these tests are better—far better—at predicting which children will have a 130-plus IQ at 17 than any other procedure we’ve devised. To have some mechanism that can find, during childhood, a quarter of the adults who’ll test so well is, if you think about it, impressive. “The problem,” wrote Lohman, “is assigning kids to schools for the gifted on the basis of a test score at age 4 or 5 and assuming that their rank order among age mates will be constant over time.”

Appelbaum, McCall’s co-author, puts an even finer point on the stakes. “No university I know,” he says, “would think of using a 4-year-old’s data to decide who to admit.”

A January 5 thread from the parenting website DCurbanmom:

Can anyone offer advice on whether I should by [sic] Aristotle Circle? I’m in a time crunch. Thanks!

My sister-in-law bought Aristotle Circle workbook and showed it to me. As a child psychologist, the workbook is so close to the real thing, I think it is cheating. That said, my nephew aced the test …

It is so sad that we have to do this—but what to do? [dear child] is at a disadvantage if everyone else is prepping and we are not.

There was a time, not that long ago, when few parents attempted to prep their 4-year-olds for kindergarten-admission exams. But then a few more began to do it, and then a few more after that, and then suddenly, normal-seeming people with normal-seeming values began doing it, too, and an arms-race mentality kicked in. Responding to parents’ anxieties and fears, some of the fancier preschools began subtly prepping their students—giving them similar exercises to do with blocks, introducing them to the concept of analogies. Expensive test-prep kits suddenly began to appear on the market. And high-end education consultancies began to bloom, like Aristotle Circle. Founded in 2008 by an M.I.T. graduate and former Wall Street analyst named Suzanne Rheault, it provides tutors, advisers, and—most important—prep books for apprehensive and even merely conscientious parents.

“I can understand people getting offended by 4-year-olds getting tutoring for these exams,” says Rheault when we meet in her Soho conference room. “But I’m not the one making them take them.”

She dumps a bag of blocks onto the conference table. They’re essentially the same ones used on the WPPSI, except hers are white and blue rather than white and red. Then she plops down her meticulous, brightly designed prep book, which she just completed last August. She opens to the “Vocabulary” section, illustrated by a former cartoonist for Disney. “Any vocabulary the child needs,” she tells me, “is in this book,” whether it’s to complete picture analogies or understand questions that are asked of them. Then she flips to a section of the types of questions the children will be asked aloud—What is a villain? What is a liquid?—and a few pages after that, she gets to what she believes is the “core intellectual meat” of the exam: “Concept groupings,” or pages of pictures organized by how the objects in them are linked. Containers: picnic baskets, suitcases, matchboxes. Things that open and close: zippers, eyes, locks. Measuring instruments: hourglasses, watches, thermometers. “Any of the abstract groupings the child needs to understand are also here,” she tells me.


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