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The Junior Meritocracy

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Illustration by Dienstelle 75  

How does Rheault know all this? I ask her, incredulously. Has she seen one? You have to be specially registered with the publisher to buy the WPPSI. Like most IQ tests, it is updated only periodically, which makes it coveted by parents—if you’ve seen one lately, you’ve likely seen the version your child will take.

“I’m not going to talk about it,” she replies. “But the people who helped us develop the workbook are psychologists who’ve seen them.”

But copies of this test are obviously floating around. Skylar’s mother, for instance, says she was offered a copy of the WPPSI by a fellow mom. Type a few key search words on Urbanbaby.com, and within 30 seconds you’ll find this post: Have WWPSI-III to sell. Excellent condition. Complete set. E-mail me if you are serious and discreet. No questions asked. Cost is $3,000. (An e-mail address follows.) This past fall, a parent admitted to a psychologist who administers SB-5 tests for Hunter that he’d purchased a copy of the exam right off the publisher’s website. “The type of tests we sell are primarily for special education, so it’s never been an issue for us in the past,” says Elizabeth Allen, the director of research and development of Pro-Ed Inc., which only recently acquired the rights to the Stanford-Binet. “When I heard, I was like, ‘You’re kidding me! Some parent paid a thousand dollars so they could get their kid into a gifted program? Wow.’ ” (The company has since fixed the problem; now only licensed professionals can buy them.)

There are some who insist that studying for these exams can’t possibly budge a child’s scores. “I don’t know how prepping could help on the OLSAT,” says Anna Commitante, head of the Gifted and Talented programs for the city’s Department of Education. But Rheault can’t believe there’s still any debate about the subject. “The psychologists we work with,” she says, “say that 50 to 60 percent of the material is learnable.” Yes, her point of view may be colored by her commercial interests—her WPPSI prep books go for $500, and she’s now completing a workbook for the OLSAT and will shortly start one for the SB-5. But she’s hardly alone in her beliefs. “When people say this stuff isn’t really coachable, I always scratch my head and say, ‘Yeah, except for the parts that are,’ ” says Jonathan Plucker, director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. “I understand the nature/nurture debate. It’s a complicated relationship. But to say that families with greater means and more interest in education can’t influence test outcomes—I can’t understand that reasoning. It’s common sense.”

The practice of prepping can run families into the thousands of dollars, posing a clear disadvantage to those who can’t afford it. But the truth is, even without coaching, children coming from economically and culturally rich backgrounds do far better on these tests. And that’s a far more urgent reason to challenge the widespread reliance on them.

“An analogy people use a lot for this is planting corn,” says Barnett, from Rutgers. “If you want to know about the properties of different kinds of corn, you have to plant it in land that’s well fertilized and well irrigated. If you plant it in soil that’s dried up and rocky, you won’t know, because nothing will grow.” The same, he explains, goes for children. How can one possibly know anything about their minds if they’ve spent their first four years in unstimulating environments?

“People have the idea that with these tests you can cancel out socioeconomic background and get to some real thing in the kid,” agrees Nicholas Lemann, dean of the journalism school at Columbia and author of The Big Test, a history of the SAT. “That’s a chimera. If you’re a 4-year-old performing well on these tests, it’s either because you have fabulous genetic material or because you have cultural advantages. But either way, the point is: You’re doing better because of your parents.”

Rather than promoting a meritocracy, in other words, these tests instead retard one. They reflect the world as it’s already stratified—and then perpetuate that same stratification.

“Instead of giving IQ tests, you could just as easily look at Zip Codes and the education levels of the parents to determine who gets the better schooling—you get a very high correlation between IQ and socioeconomic status in the first seven or eight years of life,” says Samuel J. Meisels, assessment expert and president of Chicago’s Erikson Institute, the renowned graduate school in childhood development. “Giftedness is a real thing, no question. But giftedness can be extinguished, and it can be nurtured.” He mentions a New York Times education analysis from 2008, which noted that after the city streamlined its G&T program, requiring specific cutoff scores for the OLSAT, the percentage of white students had shot up from 33 to 48 percent, while the percentage of black and Hispanic enrollment had fallen. “Sometimes,” he says, “you look at a big city’s decisions to do this and wonder if it’s about nurturing giftedness or if it’s about keeping middle-class families in the city limits.”


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