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Failing at Four

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Children who don't attend such "feeder" nursery schools may be at a disadvantage. "If a child hasn't been exposed to the same materials and teaching," observed Dalton's Elisabeth Krents, "that can affect their performance on an ERB test.

"I look at ERBs differently now," she adds with a sigh. "It's too bad. It's the only piece of standardized information we have. What it's caused us to do is look more closely at the children at the interview and when we observe the child at their school."

Perhaps the most unfortunate and enduring aspect of a poor or average test score -- even for well-adjusted parents -- isn't that it may prevent one's children from getting into Horace Mann or Collegiate and from there into Harvard or Yale but that it might undermine their belief in their son's or daughter's specialness.

"I doubted myself; maybe I overestimated my kid," Cynthia admits, referring to her disappointment when Andrew's scores arrived in the mail. "Maybe I'm looking at him with loving eyes, and maybe I'm wrong. He's very cute and animated and bright. But maybe that doesn't mean he's smart in an academic sense. I stopped trying with him. Before, we'd talk about the days of the week, or I would try to get into more detailed discussions. Now I felt it wasn't going to make any difference. I was so disappointed."

The nursery-school director did little to raise Cynthia's spirits when Cynthia sought her advice on which schools her son should apply to. Based on his ERB scores, the first tier seemed out of the question.

Cynthia tossed out the name of a school that, before Andrew's unfortunate test performance, she'd have considered a safety school. "She said, 'You know, it's a hot school,' " Cynthia remembers. "I said, 'Oh, my God! I thought it would be almost a given.' "

The only hope the preschool head offered, according to Cynthia, was to have Andrew retested in the fall if he "turned a corner" over the summer. However, come fall, the nursery director resisted having him retested -- apparently having decided that Andrew's low springtime scores had settled the issue -- until she read the teachers' report. "It said, 'Andrew moves from activity to activity,' " Cynthia remembers. "I think she thought it would say, 'and is unable to focus.' Instead, the report said, 'is able to focus and direct his energies creatively.' So she sent me to Rosalind Blum."

Rosalind Blum, an elegant, sixty-ish woman who for 30 years served as school psychologist at the Saint David's School, enjoys a more favorable reputation among parents who find their way to her Upper West Side apartment than she does among some of her peers.

"Rosalind Blum has always been known as someone who parents will be referred to if their ERBs aren't good," sniffs a psychologist who works closely with the private schools. "Over the years, she has gotten the reputation of someone who gets very high scores."

Blum, whose love of children remains undiminished after decades in her field, makes no excuses for her testing techniques. "Children have a wonderful habit of saying, 'I don't know,' " she explains. "I say, 'You're fooling me,' or 'I want you to try.' You can never change the directions of the test. It has to be given exactly the way it is in the manual. But you can encourage the child as much as you want."

Blum will even allow a child to sit in his mother's lap during the test if that makes him feel safer and more cooperative. "There's nothing wrong with having a parent here if they keep their mouth shut," she asserts.

She'll also give children a little extra time to complete the test if they need it. Her practices apparently haven't endeared her to the folks at the ERB. "Occasionally, I'll call them or they'll call me," she says nonchalantly. "They might want to know if I've tested the child and when."

While Blum might sound like every striving parent's sugarplum fairy, there's really no such thing as a neutral tester. "There shouldn't be that much difference from examiner to examiner," Kaufman observes. "However, the reality is that people have their own personalities. Some examiners establish better rapport with children."

No one understands that better than the nursery-school directors. The ERB administers the test not only at its own offices but also at some of the preschools. And when the nurseries find a good tester -- not necessarily an easy grader but one who seems to enjoy a good relationship with children -- they do their best to have him return year after year.

A bad or novice tester can have unfortunate consequences. One mother recalls the crisis that enveloped her preschool several years back when its old, established tester was replaced by a newcomer. "People didn't get in anywhere," she says, perhaps indulging in a bit of motherly hyperbole. The following year, "the head of the nursery school said, 'I'm going to get the old tester back.' She did, and my kids did fine on the test."

Cynthia's lap wasn't required when Rosalind Blum administered the test to Andrew. His cooperation had been purchased in advance with the promise of a trip to Noodle Kidoodle. His mother sat in the waiting room and listened to the proceedings through the open door to the psychologist's office.


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