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Can tests measure what 4-year-olds know?


Photo courtesy of Flickr user woodleywonderworks


In New York City, testing the intelligence of 4 and 5 year olds has long been a tool used to predict a child’s success in the city’s most exclusive and academically rigorous early childhood programs. Parents pay upwards of $450 for tests like the Otis-Lennon School Abilities Test, or OLSAT, and the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, also known as WPPSI-III, to measure their child’s readiness for Gifted and Talented Programs and the curriculum at some of the most elite private schools in the country.

This kind of assessment is known here as Kindergarten Admission Testing, and is widely criticized by educators. A recent New York Magazine article scrutinized the practice of testing 4-year-olds, a practice that is being used to close the achievement gap in other parts of the country.

The online news letter, Early Ed Watch recently featured an interview with Lori Burns of the Santa Clara County Partnership for School Readiness in Santa Clara, Calif. who claimed her organization uses a three-part test of pre-schoolers to help gauge their readiness for certain concepts in Kindergarten and to help shape curriculum in her area’s public schools.

The United States Department of Education has also weighed in on the early ed measurement issue. In next year’s budget, President Obama included funding for The Department’s Institute for Education Sciences to develop tools to reliably measure whether kindergartners are ready to learn. This is exactly what Burns’ organization is using, not just to predict a student’s success in Kindergarten, but to help guide and develop this success if a student or teacher needs help. Because Burns’ county has a significant achievement gap between students in poverty and those in higher income households, she hopes the assessment will close this gap once and for all.

In Santa Clara, the assessment has three parts. First, there is the Kindergarten Observation Form. This element of the assessment has 24 questions that teachers answer by observing students during their first month of Kindergarten about the student’s motor skills, self-regulation skills, social expression skills, and the child’s early academic abilities. Second, teachers answer questions about their expectations for each student and the Partnership compares the observation of the student to the teacher’s expectations to get an idea of where a child stands regarding his or her Kindergarten readiness. Finally, the third part of the assessment is a parent questionnaire that requires parents to answer questions about their child’s academic background and home life.

Burns believes the testing is crucial in order to tailor Kindergarten curriculum to a child’s individual learning needs. It used to be that people would ask if it was practical to try and measure such a young child’s abilities, she said. But now, parents in Santa Clara are starting to see the benefit.

Here in New York, the focus of pre-k and kindergarten testing remains vastly different. The goal is not to equalize children, but to set the apart from one another and allow the highest achievers a chance to accelerate even further into the elite programs in the city, while other students whose parents don’t have the means for early childhood testing remain in programs with little individualism and continue to struggle.

About Mariah:
Mariah Summers, 23, was born and raised just outside of Portland, Ore. in the suburb of West Linn. She attended the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon in Eugene for her undergraduate degree, where she majored in News/Editorial Journalism. During college, Mariah wrote for the student newspaper, The Oregon Daily Emerald, and had internships at two newspapers in Portland: The Portland Tribune and the alternative weekly paper Willamette Week. She spent a summer at Dateline NBC in New York and currently interns at the New York Daily News. During her time with, Mariah will be covering early childhood education and is embedded in the Ella Baker School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
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