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Failing at Four


Perhaps the most important thing any parent should know about the test is its limitations. "They don't measure creativity," explains Alan Kaufman, a professor of psychology at the Yale medical school's Child Study Center. "They don't measure social intelligence. They measure a relatively small band of mental functioning. It's not going to predict life success. The best things IQ tests predict is achievement in school and how well you'll do on another IQ test when you're older."

The test also isn't always good at predicting how children who score in the middle and lower ranges will do in school. "My son graduated with honors from Harvard and he couldn't put the damn blocks together," boasts a psychologist.

"It should not be used as a gatekeeper," warns Kaufman, an author of ten books on intelligence testing and co-author, with his wife, Nadeen, of several tests for children in the wppsi age range, approximately 6 years old and younger. "It should be used to help us understand how children learn best."

Admissions directors make clear that the ERB is only one of the tools they use. Barbara Root, admissions director at Convent of the Sacred Heart, says it accounts for perhaps one quarter of the data they collect on each child. Other factors include the child's visit -- where he's closely observed by teachers and admissions officials and plays "games," such as making spirals, designed to test his readiness for the rigors of kindergarten. Many admissions directors also visit the 4-year-old in situ at his or her nursery school. Finally, they interview the parents to see what sort of impression they make. "Are these people we can work with when their child hits a bump?" is how Barbara Root puts it. "That's kind of what you're assessing at the interview."

Grace Ball, head of lower-school admissions at the Riverdale Country School, says she goes on instinct. "It's my gut feeling on what happened when the child was here and not the ERB," she says. "But that's not true at every school."

In a report this year on the kindergarten-admissions process and ways to make it perhaps a little fairer and kinder, Edes Gilbert, the former head of the Spence School, notes that while the wppsi remains a valuable tool, she objects to the fact that "in many cases the scores coming from ERB provide reasons not to accept."

The exam results also include observations on the child's test-taking behavior -- things like self-confidence and motivation -- that are monuments of diplomacy. However, admissions directors know how to read between the lines. "They're the red-flag phrases," explains one preschool head. " 'He had to be refocused,' 'could be refocused.' Parents will recognize the words but won't realize how powerful they are. If you never had to say it, the child never had to be refocused. Many schools want the children where it's not an issue."

"Everybody does lip service to 'I want to take nice care of the kids,' " she continues." But behind the scenes, she says, schools follow a different set of rules: "It's, 'We're not going to admit you because your numbers aren't right,' or 'We're not going to admit you because your connections aren't right.' "

Fears that a low ERB score will set off a domino effect -- preventing a child from gaining acceptance to a top grammar and high school and from there into an Ivy League university -- are propelling some parents to pay psychologists, whose professional license allows them to order the test, to give their kids a crack at the exam before they take it for real from the ERB. "They're going to three different psychologists at $2,000 a pop," contends Victoria Goldman, co-author with Catherine Hausman of The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools. "Not only do your kids get run through the test -- they get a ten-page report and a psychological evaluation."

This fall, Lydia Spinelli, head of the Brick Church School, was shocked to find a psychologist's flyer on her school's bulletin board, offering to tutor her 4-year-olds for the exam. It even had tabs with a phone number that parents could tear off. "I ripped it down immediately and sent it to the head of ERB," Spinelli reports.

The Educational Records Bureau, which declined to comment for this story, warns parents against having kids coached. "A perceptive tester can discern a child's exposure to the test," a brochure explains. "This invalidates the results."

What that means in layman's language is that 4-year-olds squeal. "They tell you all sorts of fabulous things, and they'll tell you if they've seen the test before," a professional tester explains. "It's not something you have to dig for."

However, apart from depending on the artlessness of preschoolers and the occasional bungling, greedy psychologist, the ERB appears to have few if any mechanisms in place for policing the process. And unlike the SAT, where there are multiple versions of the exam, the wppsi comes in only one version.

Furthermore, even children who aren't coached may enjoy an advantage if they attend certain "traditional" preschools that "teach to the test." They don't sneak the kids the answers. But instead of allowing the toddlers merely to whittle away the days of early childhood playing dress-up or chasing one another around the schoolyard, they'll expose them to games that resemble the tasks they'll face on the test.

For example, children at one preschool, and not even one of the city's more "academic" nurseries, as those that teach to the test are euphemistically known, perennially performed less well on one section of the wppsi than they did on others. "Over the years, our kids have always done poorly in mazes," says a school parent. "They didn't coach, but they got some games in that had mazes."

Dr. Kaufman contends that children who take the test a second or third time enjoy an unfair advantage. "All of Wechsler's tests have a well-known practice effect," he explains. "You are going to earn an overall score ten IQ points higher."

The difference is smaller for children, the psychologist adds, around five points. However, that slight difference may be more than enough to bump a child's score up from the average into the above-average range, where the city's first-tier independent schools like to see it.

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