Should you test a 4-year-old?

New York magazine explodes the myth of the little genius

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 3, 2010 6:04PM (EST)

As the mother of two daughters going to public school in New York City, it's hard to read Jennifer Senior's current New York magazine cover story about the "myth of the gifted child" and not want to stick my head in the oven.

Whether they're vying for a place in one of the city's tony private schools or competing for a rare spot in a public school Gifted and Talented program, there's nothing, it seems, our notoriously type-A parents won't do for proof of their progeny's specialness. And if that means submitting the recently toilet trained not just to IQ testing (at a few hundred bucks a pop) but also to pricey prep classes and tutoring if it gives them a leg up on school admissions, so be it.

And why not? As Senior explains, to the sweating of parental palms across the land, that notion that you can put your preschooler on a success track actually holds plenty of water. For example, the teeny tiny number of 4- and 5-year olds who meet the monumentally rigorous standards for admission into the city's most prestigious public school, Hunter, do tend to go on the rose-petal-strewn road right to the Ivy League.

But -- and here's the part where many of us exhale -- those tests may just mean jack shit. Citing a classic study of childhood intelligence, Senior notes that IQs are the least stable "before the age of six." Furthermore, kids -- and tests -- are so variable 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." In other words, nearly half of our baby geniuses wouldn't be so on a different scale.

She also talks to Steve Nelson, head of the Calhoun school, which follows a child-centered progressive education model. As Nelson explains, simply, "Early good testers don’t make better students any more than early walkers make better runners.”

Given the wild unpredictability of intelligence testing, you'd think that the admissions process -- and the thriving industry of preschool tutoring and test prep -- would be all but passé. But in New York, as in every other intellectually ambitious school system in the nation, the idea that one can coach, cajole and otherwise insinuate one's perfect offspring into the best environment is consoling. Having exceptional children also, of course, shines so well back on Mom and Dad. Sure, it creates a culture that encourages parents to spend on tutors and test books and puts those who don't at a disadvantage, one that instills a crazy amount of pressure both on the schools and, significantly, the kids themselves, but meritocracy's an illusion anyway.

I want the best for my daughters too -- despite the pitying looks I regularly get from fellow parents when they hear about our artsy-fartsy progressive public school, one whose philosophy is that "Learning through discovery and inquiry is better than through abstract experiences and standardized tests" and which relies on observational assessment over testing to track student progress. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard, "I just don't think my child would be challenged enough there," I'd have the girls' Ph.D.s at Stanford prepaid by now.

At pickup yesterday, I spoke to one of our teachers about testing in the younger grades -- and the increasing pressure schools like ours are under to conform to their charts and numbers-centric kin. "You can't manufacture intelligence," he said with a shrug, "and you can't turn schools into factories."

Well, you can, of course, and plenty of people seem content to do just that -- especially when our public schools themselves are now graded in New York City and the dispiriting mantra from downtown is "data doesn't lie."

But while I'm totally rah-rah on letting kids who are true powerhouses go full steam to their maximum potential, I'm also adamant about letting regular children be regular children. They have the rest of their lives to discover if they're geniuses. They have one shot at being crazy little inspired weirdos. I want for my kids what Calhoun's Steve Nelson wants for his students: "a school full of kids who daydream. I want kids who are occasionally impulsive. I want kids who are fun to be with. I want kids who don’t want to answer the questions on those tests in the way the adult wants them to be answered, because that kid is already seeing the world differently. I want kids who are cynical enough at age four to know that there’s really something wrong with someone asking them these things."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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