Failing at Four

On a night last fall, a 4-year-old stayed up 45 minutes past his bedtime – and it almost changed his life forever.

The next morning, the boy was scheduled to take the independent-schools standardized admissions test, a full-bore IQ test known colloquially as the ERB. But his parents, Cynthia and David, had gone out the previous night and forgotten to tell their baby-sitter to have their son in bed by 7:30. He went to sleep at 8:15.

They may have forgotten because they had little reason to be concerned. They already had a daughter at one of the city’s top girls’ schools. And both parents had attended Manhattan private schools themselves. They thought the knew the ropes. Besides, they believed their son Andrew* was a very smart little boy.

“I thought I’d have a choice of schools,” Cynthia says. “He was a bright penny. He caught things quickly. You could see the wheels were spinning.”

But when he arrived at the offices of the Educational Records Bureau on East 42nd Street, Andrew wasn’t exhibiting his normal sparkle. “It makes a difference,” his mother insists. “He’s an early riser.”

Cynthia began to worry as soon as his examiner led him off to the testing room. “I just had a bad feeling, and sure enough the tester comes out and says, ‘I think you’ve got a tired little boy,’ ” she remembers. “My heart sank. It was just awful. I could have kicked myself. How could I blow it like that? The results proved me right. He didn’t even pick up his pencil to do the mazes, and the tester noted this. His scores were very skewed. He did well on the verbal and abysmal on the mazes.”

One might accuse Cynthia of overreacting. After all, how meaningful can a single test be – especially when the test-takers are 4-year-olds, a demographic group notoriously susceptible to hunger, fatigue, and the sounds of traffic? Unfortunately, she wasn’t. With fewer families, flush with their Wall Street winnings, fleeing the city for the suburbs, private schools have become more selective than ever. And even though admissions directors insist the test is only one variable they use in deciding which children to accept, those without high scores need not apply to the top tier.

Parents, aware of the exam’s power, have turned their children’s fourth year, a year that rightly ought to be devoted to imaginary tea parties and playing tag with friends, into a yearlong study hall filled with snap vocabulary and arithmetic quizzes – at what cost to their children no one yet seems to know. “She could learn to cut a spiral at 4 or 6,” observes a preschool head, referring to one common developmental test. “But if you lose the time for a tea party and the kind of creative thinking and social interactions, it’s gone. They could learn to read at 4, 5, 6, or 7. But if they’re forced to read at 4, they’re missing something. There’s only a certain amount of time and emotional energy.

“Every January, I have very sad feelings about the process,” she continues, “that children are made so anxious, that parents are made so anxious. I’m really a teacher. My job isn’t about next year. My job is to make it right today.

“I used to think things would change,” she concludes. “I used to think it would get worse and worse and then get better. But now I know it gets worse and worse and worse and worse.”

Some ambitious families, believing their child’s destiny, not to mention the family’s honor, depends on scoring in the 98th percentile, are even having their toddlers professionally tutored to ace the test. “It’s no longer a level playing field,” says Elisabeth Krents, the director of admissions for the Dalton School’s First Program. “There are people who are teaching the test to 4-year-olds. As a school that prides itself on ethics, I have a real hard time with what’s happening.”

“The tests don’t measure creativity,” says Yale psychologist Alan Kaufman. “They don’t measure social intelligence. They measure a relatively small band of mental functioning. They can’t predict life success.”

Krents recalls the mother – perhaps less sophisticated than some – who admitted that her kid had been tutored. “She proudly told me, ‘The ERB coach I got told me my child only needs coaching three times a week as opposed to five times a week.’ “

Krents doesn’t know where the child ended up for kindergarten, but it wasn’t Dalton.

Though the exam is colloquially known as the ERB, the Educational Records Bureau is simply the organization that administers it. The actual exam is the revised Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence – the wppsi for short. It is composed of verbal and performance subtests designed to explore everything from a child’s vocabulary to his ability to perform fine motor skills and solve math problems. The test usually runs between 45 minutes and one hour in length.

“The ERB test has been described as shooting flies with a bazooka,” says John Dexter, the head of the Trevor Day School. “It’s a full-battery IQ test. It’s quite a good test. Whether or not it’s a first-class admissions tool is often discussed.”

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.

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.

“She would say something like, ‘Andrew, what’s a knife?’ And Andrew would sit there and say, ‘I don’t know.’ And I’m thinking, Of course you know what a knife is. This is what Mommy uses to slit your throat. I’m dying out there. I wanted to lean out the window and scream at the traffic, ’Quiet!

“She would say, ‘I know you know. I bet you’re a good guesser. If I came back to this word a little later, would you tell me the answer?’ And he said, ‘Yeah,’ and he did.”

The test continued. “She said, ‘You go to lunch and you have $2, and lunch costs $1. How much money do you have left?’ Andrew says, ‘Zero.’ And I’m thinking, Of course it’s zero. He left a dollar as a tip.

When the ordeal ended approximately 80 minutes later, Blum sent Andrew outside with a lollipop and called Cynthia into her office. “The first thing she says to me is, ‘You have a very smart little boy on your hands,’ ” Cynthia remembers. “I could have cried. It was as if she was saying what you thought all along was correct. It was the validation you’re looking for. He scored in the 95th percentile.

“I felt like I’d suddenly been given a reprieve from a death sentence,” she continues. “We’re back in the game, back in the crapshoot, back to the top tier. Advance me some chips and give me those dice, because we’re going to play.”

Sarah, another mother whose child applied to schools last year, never for a moment thought she’d have a problem getting her daughter Claire into kindergarten. She already had a sibling in school. Besides, her mom was convinced of her brilliance. “I did zero to prepare Claire,” she admits. “I thought she would score in a narrow band in the nineties. Claire’s teacher at nursery school had wanted to see the scores. She wanted to see what really high scores would look like.”

Unlike Andrew, Claire had gotten a good night’s sleep before trotting down to ERB headquarters one Saturday morning. Her problem, according to her mother, was hunger. “We waited an hour,” Sarah recalls. “One tester didn’t show up that day.” So the little girl’s 10:30 test didn’t start until 11:30. “Which was close to lunch. Now, knowing what I know, I’d have probably left after ten minutes.”

Claire’s scores were dismal. Her older sister’s school offered to retest the child themselves, a courtesy they extend to sibling families. “That was another mistake on my part,” Sarah says. “We should have had her privately retested.”

The school was inundated with siblings last year, enough to fill most of the class. They decided they couldn’t take all of them. Claire was one they turned down. “At worst, she would be in the middle of the pack,” her mother argues.

“There’s nothing even to talk about,” she insists. “Can’t smart people see it doesn’t make sense? It’s like talking about gun control. It’s so obvious there shouldn’t be handguns.”

Despite Claire’s scores, her mother continues to believe in her abilities. “That’s why this whole thing stinks so much,” she says. “I know her best. A tester who meets with her for 45 minutes does not know my child.”

The family is happy at the school Claire now attends. But her resentment at her older daughter’s school lingers. “I can’t believe I can’t let go of this anger,” she confesses. “It makes me crazy.”

Psychiatrist and sports-performance therapist Teresa DeLuca won’t coach 4-year-olds. She wants to make that clear. “I was taken aback the first time I got a call,” she says. “I said, I’ve worked with CEOs. I’ve never worked with pre-kindergartners.”

However, she is willing to counsel parents – about two dozen couples at last count – about how to ace their own interviews at their first-choice schools. “Most of my clients are CEOs or vice-presidents of investment-banking houses or young kids who made a tremendous amount of money in the market with IPOs,” DeLuca says, sitting in the Park Avenue office of her company, Couch Time. “My goal is to get them in a calm, relaxed state. If a person has a high position in their company and is used to being on the other side of the desk, we work on their ability to listen to criticism and respond to it in a positive way. That usually takes some practice.”

“She would say something like ‘Andrew, what’s a knife?’ And Andrew would sit there and say, ‘I don’t know.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Of course you know what a knife is. That’s what Mommy uses to slit your throat.’”

DeLuca’s $750 fee includes three sessions to help parents hone their people skills. She also assists families in assembling their kindergarten applications, her staff checking them for “continuity, grammar, and content.”

“I’ve had clients who have said, ‘My secretary filled it out, and I don’t know what she meant by that,’ ” the psychiatrist confides. “And I say, ‘Stop! This is your child. You need to write this.’ “

To remind self-involved parents of the purpose of their visit, DeLuca asks them to bring along a snapshot of their child, which she places on her desk during the session. “Sometimes parents get sidetracked,” she says gently. “One of them might say, ‘I saw this magazine article about this weight-loss drug. Should I take it?’ “

She may ask the family to bring their pre-kindergartner to the third and final session, but only if she senses the child’s relationship with his or her parents is so problematic that an admissions director will have no trouble spotting it.

“If both parents are working and the child is being cared for by a nanny,” DeLuca explains, “sometimes the parents don’t have much ability to discipline or control the child. If it’s not working in my office, can you imagine how it’s going to work in the interview?”

DeLuca’s counsel culminates the night before the big day, when she calls the parents at home – either their shared abode or separate ones, depending on their marital status – and reviews what they’ve studied. She knows from experience that families will phone her shortly after the interview if all went well. If she doesn’t hear from them by the end of the business day, she’ll call them. “One of the parents usually loses their temper – not yelling and screaming, but they become sharp, arrogant,” she explains.

While the private schools certainly aren’t immune to the charms of an Internet mogul who’s eager to bankroll the retractable dome on the new field house, the maddening thing for some parents about kindergarten admissions is that money alone usually isn’t enough to seal the deal. A-list kindergartens are also looking for kids who can do the work.

“I try to explain to the parents that the interviewer is not their opponent,” DeLuca says. “When people really want something and don’t have the control to get it – we live in a society where instant gratification is almost the norm – they lose common sense.”

Parents may think the blame for the sharper edges of the kindergarten-admissions process lies with the schools. The schools return the favor. “In the sixties and seventies, it seemed as if parents in the independent schools knew a great deal more about child development and education,” observes the Trevor Day School’s John Dexter. He says that despite the popularity of books such as Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence and the “multiple intelligences” theories of Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, “it hasn’t percolated into the hearts and minds of parents. They still seem driven into a very traditional lockstep type of education. Now the question is just focused on, how can I get the highest test score out of my kid?

It’s hard to blame parents if the schools use test scores to weed out some of the applicants. On the other hand, there might be something more important at stake than whether a child gets into his parents’ first-choice kindergarten. By paying excessive obeisance to tests, parents may be squandering an irreplaceable part of their son’s or daughter’s childhood.

“People are so concerned about shapes and colors,” laments the head of one preschool. “They’ll say, ‘You teach shapes and colors, don’t

you?’ What does a circle mean to a 21Ž2-year-old? You can teach it, but why? It’s not very interesting to a child. People learn from the concrete to the abstract. Now they want children to be at the abstract right away. There’s no time for the learning process.”

Cynthia wasn’t focusing on the finer points of early-childhood education in the weeks after Andrew’s testing home run. Though the family may have been back in the running with the first-tier schools thanks to Rosalind Blum’s glowing wppsi evaluation – Cynthia will never know how much weight the schools to which Andrew applied did or didn’t assign to it, though it certainly did wonders for her own self-confidence – the little boy was still a long way from being fitted for his private-school blazer.

Separating from his mother was proving to be a problem. At one interview, a teacher had to retrieve Cynthia to prove to Andrew, who seemed on the verge of tears, that she wasn’t far away. At another school, Andrew simply refused to come out of the coat closet.

The boy’s attitude held little promise as the family crossed the park in a cab on their way to their third interview, at one of the city’s most prestigious schools. “He said to me, ‘It’s okay if I cry a little, isn’t it?’ ” his mother recalls. “I said, ‘Not really. Why would you cry?’ I didn’t want to squeeze too tight. I just said, ‘I know I’ll be proud of you.’ “

Cynthia and her husband, David, toured the school the same day as Andrew’s interview. The word on the park bench was that the institution was so selective that while children were given small gifts after their visits to other schools – a plant here, a pad with the school’s insignia there – at this place, “you have to bring a hostess gift because it’s such a hot-shit school,” Cynthia says.

However, as soon as she saw the place, she knew she wanted Andrew to go there. Its park-bench reputation aside, she found the school and its faculty refreshingly unpretentious. Besides, the facilities were spectacular.

“I’ll never forget it,” Cynthia says, recalling her emotions as she sat in the waiting room after Andrew had been taken off with several other little applicants to play. “We were there with six or eight other parents. I was doing needlepoint, and my hands were actually trembling.”

She and David were finally ushered into their meeting with the director of admissions. “I was just on,” Cynthia boasts. “Things came to me quickly. I was able to highlight Andrew’s strengths and talk about him in a favorable way – not saccharine or gushy. Sometimes you just click with the person you’re talking to, and we just clicked.”

On this morning, the problem turned out to be David, not Andrew. The admissions director “turns to David and says, ‘What do you like to do with Andrew?’ ” Cynthia remembers.

“David thought his part was over. He’d relaxed. He’s at a loss. Here’s my cultured, educated husband, and I’m thinking, David? David? Mayday! Mayday! David’s drowning.

“I rescued him. I said, ‘David, you play on the computer with Andrew.’ He says, ‘Yes, yes, computers.’ “

It was a minor glitch in an otherwise charmed encounter. “I sounded good,” Cynthia observes. “The admissions director was appropriately responsive. As we put our coats on, David looks at me and says, ‘You were great.’ “

The family wrote the school a first-choice letter. And knowing that the admissions director would, at some unannounced moment, make a return visit to Andrew’s nursery school, they made their son wear collared shirts every day. “That was David’s idea,” Cynthia reports. “This is the extent of the craziness. This is how totally off the mark you become.”

She remembers the Monday morning in March the acceptance letters arrived. “I opened them in the order in which they came,” she says.

Andrew was wait-listed at the school where the teacher had had to summon Cynthia, and also at the one where he had vanished into the coat closet. The school his mother most wanted him to attend was the third letter she opened.

“My mind was a blank,” she says. “I thought, I hope the first-choice letter got there. When I opened it, I just started crying and jumping up and down.”

Andrew emerged from his bedroom to see what the commotion was about. “I said, ‘You got into the best school,’ and kissed him so much. In characteristic 4-year-old fashion, he starts to cry and says, ‘I don’t want to go there.’ “

This fall, cynthia and david attended their first parents’ night. “You felt like you were one of the chosen few,” she confides. “You’d been found worthy.”

At such functions, parent volunteers sell T-shirts and mouse pads with the school logo to raise money for the parents’ association.

Cynthia proudly stocked up. “You went through the fire and emerged with a school backpack in your hand,” she laughs. “To the victor goes the spoils.”

*Students’ names and identifying details have been changed.

Failing at Four