Should You Prepare Your Young Child For Private School or Gifted and Talented Testing?

Let me start by saying that if you have a very young child (age 4 – 6) who will be tested for school admissions or a gifted program, everything you have done with your child from the day he was born until the day he is tested has been preparing that child for testing (not to mention for school and life!).

There is a body of information and understandings that children tend to acquire by the age of 4 or 5. There are certain abilities that children gain in those years – some faster than others, of course. Everything you have done with your child – from reading to him, to talking with him, to taking him on outings, to putting him in pre-school, to giving him opportunities to play – every experience he has had contributed to what he knows and can do by the time he is tested. People who create tests know what young children generally understand, how they are able to think and what they can do and that is what the test he’ll take will cover.

In the olden days (when I was a kid), young children were tested so their teacher knew the abilities of the children in her class and could shape the curriculum accordingly. They also used the results of these tests to put children into different level reading, math and writing groups. This still happens today with kindergarten readiness testing. We do know that being placed in the lowest ability groups can have long-term negative academic consequences for children, so I would argue that you want your child to be prepared for readiness tests.

Where the stakes get really high is when children are tested for programs that might give them a better quality program than they would otherwise have access to. I’m talking about testing for gifted and talented programs or private schools. If your child does well on the test (and excels on whatever other factors are considered in making a placement decision), she will be in a class where she is surrounded by other, brighter children. She will be challenged to work harder and do better. She will have access to a deeper, richer curriculum and will learn more in the course of a year than children placed in general ed classrooms. In other words, higher test scores will entitle her to a better education.

Given the high stakes of doing well on the test for this better education, should you prep your child for the test that is to come, or should you let the chips fall as they may? Psychologists who administer tests and schools administrators will tell you not to prepare the child – just make sure they have a good night’s sleep and that they are well fed on the morning of the test. “We want them as they are,” they say, “with no preparation whatsoever so we can pick the best and the brightest from the bunch.”

That’s all well and good for the school, but not necessarily for your child.

Here’s the problem. For a 5-year-old child to do well on a test, they don’t just have to know the information the test is covering or have the abilities the test is measuring, they need to know how to take a test. Very few 5-year olds have ever taken a test before.

With young children, the test proctor will usually read a question and then show the child a series of 3 to 5 possible answers. Here’s an example: The proctor might read say, “Lana and her twin sister, Anna, were planning the activity for their birthday party. Lana wanted to have a bowling party, but Anna didn’t want to have a party where they played a sport. It took a while, but they finally agreed on what to do at their party. Point to the picture that shows what they did at their party.”

There might be 3 pictures for the child to choose from – a picture of the girls bowling, a picture of the girls ice skating, and a picture of the girls getting their nails painted.

A young child who has never taken a test before may not realize how closely they have to pay attention to what is being said in order to answer the question. A child who has a hard time sitting still can be sunk on a test for that reason alone. A young child who has never been tested before may not realize that one of those pictures is “right” and they must point to the “right” answer. A young child who has never been tested before may not realize that they have to do some reasoning in order to answer this question. They heard the word “bowling” in the question and there is a picture of the girls bowling so that must be the answer. Do you see how many ways an inexperienced test-taker might get tripped up here?

Let’s take a vocabulary test administered by a psychologist. On this type of questions, children get tend to get 1 point for a limited answer and 2 points for a more complete answer. Ask a child what an apple is and he’ll get a point for saying it’s a fruit. He’ll get 2 points for saying it’s red, a fruit and has seeds. Many shy children will answer this type of question with one or two words, limiting his ability to do well on this part of the test. Other kids, who are uncomfortable with the whole experience might say, “I don’t know” just to get it to stop. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen in psychologist’s reports that the child said “I don’t know” quite often.

Another reason I strongly urge parents to do some practice for these high stakes tests is that practice will show you what your child doesn’t know. Many of these tests will ask a 4-year-old some basic addition or subtraction questions, for example. Can your child do those? Wouldn’t you like to know before your child is given a test that will impact the quality of the education he is offered? If you find out that your child can’t do simple adding or subtracting, this is something to work on together outside of test preparation.

If you read my book, Testing For Kindergarten, you know that my son was first given an IQ test at age 3 where he scored in the 37th percentile. He had a hearing problem that we corrected after that, but I was told that there was nothing we could do to raise his score in order to help him qualify for a better school. After “prepping” him for a year, he was retested and he scored in the 94th percentile. When he got to school, his kindergarten teacher couldn’t even tell he had ever been behind. My son was an honors student in high school and today he is at NYU.

So, if you ask me whether you should prepare your child for a test that will impact his educational future, my answer is a resounding “yes!” I believe you are letting your child down if you send her in unprepared for a test this important.

One more thing. A new book has just come out that I’m dying to read – It’s called How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough. He argues that abilities like grit, character and curiosity matter more than cognitive skills in whether or not a child does well in life. I made a similar argument in my own book, Testing For Kindergarten. The abilities one needs to do well in school are not necessarily the abilities that help a child do well in life. Still, I argue for preparing children for these tests. Why? It’s simple – because a child needs high test scores to gain access to the best academic opportunities. If you want the best learning environment for your child for the many years he is in school, test scores matter. With stakes this high, we have to help our kids prepare whether or not we believe that the skills they are learning to do well on the tests are the skills that are going to make them successful in life.

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