November 25, 2009

Private Tutoring and Test Prep...for Kindergarten?

Recent news has revealed something appalling in New York City: parents are paying hundreds for tutoring to get their kindergarteners into "gifted and talented" classes.  Although not isolated to New York City, the problem is highlighted there by the fact that, despite the high price of tutoring ($145 per session), there is still an 80-child waiting list at one of the popular programs.  The tutoring is meant to help prepare the children for the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (for reasoning) and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment (for knowledge), which are NYC's tests for admission to their gifted programing.

This situation is a problem for a number of reasons, not the least of which is a sad, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think of the poor 3 or 4 year-olds being taken to test prep tutoring.  But we'll leave emotion aside to discuss the more tangible problems.

First of all, this sort of tutoring is merely going to widen the gap between those who can afford it and those who can't.  Children should have equal opportunity to be admitted to the gifted programs, based solely on merit, whether their parents could afford to prep them with expensive tutoring or not.

On the other hand, the test preparation also points to concern over the condition of the public schools, especially now, when fewer parents can afford private school tuition.  I can't offer a quick fix to struggling school systems, but I do know that it it a serious red flag when parents are frantic to keep their children out of public schools.

Finally, I'm concerned with the very idea of giving a test to determine a child's scholastic future at the age of 4.  The performance of children at this age is so susceptible to emotion; if a child is uncomfortable in the unfamiliar test environment or the adult administering the test is not calm, patient and pleasant, the child is very likely to become flustered and make mistakes.

This happens at all ages.  Think of your driver's test: if your test administrator was as nice as mine, the test was probably a breeze, but not everyone is so lucky.  But the fact is that 4 year-olds are even more susceptible than they will be in another year, when they have had the benefit of the independence and listening skills of kindergarten.

Personally, I think our system would be better off with fewer standardized tests, and absolutely no 'teaching (or tutoring) to the test.'  Teachers do a better job when they have the freedom to really teach.  And children learn better, too.

[New York Times] (sub. req.)

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