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The Private Preschool Dust-Up

Competition for admission to coveted schools has been so well documented by the media by now that I thought I had seen it all. But a news article in the New York Times on Oct. 28 about the battle for acceptance to private preschools in New York City convinced me otherwise ("For Some Youngsters, a Second Chance at an Exclusive School").

The report described how children from some families are allowed to take the Educational Records Bureau a second time if their score the first time did not make the cut for admission. The E.R.B. is a one-hour intelligence test designed for preschoolers that is administered one on one by a licensed psychologist. It costs $510.

Private preschools in New York City disproportionately rely on the test's results, although they also consider to a lesser degree interviews, reports and letters of recommendation. The second test costs over $1,000 and is derived from the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence.

Because the preschools are private, they can grant admission to any child they wish. But some parents charge that the schools are not fair when they allow only certain children to take the E.R.B. a second time. The preschools readily admit that they retest children whose parents are in some way connected to the school, or are an excellent candidate. The latter is code for children of celebrities, or children from wealthy parents willing to contribute to the school's endowment.

If this were the sum and substance of the story, it would not qualify as much more than a dispute among the ultra wealthy in New York City. But the E.R.B. is involved in a larger controversy. Its Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence test is used by private schools across the country to select children for kindergarten and other grade levels.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the Educational Records Bureau became the de facto gatekeeper to New York City's private schools when the admission association decided to use one uniform test. The E.R.B. partnered with Pearson, a test development company, to design the exam, which is revised every decade or so. As competition has heated up, not surprisingly has the demand for tutoring and test preparation materials.

In addition to the complaint about special treatment, the debate is over the validity of the inferences made about the test. If it is coachable, then wealthy parents will always have a built-in advantage. Yet despite the evidence calling into question its predictive value, the test continues to be used in the belief that it remains the only "objective" measure of ability.

I wonder where this testing frenzy is headed. If we believe that a four-year old's intelligence can be measured, then why not administer tests to even younger children? What about a test for the newly born? Don't dismiss that possibility. It could happen.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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