Saturday, July 24, 2010

GUEST BLOG POST: Prep Your Child for Kindergarten Testing by Karen Quinn

(photo by David Drapkin)

There is a controversy brewing in NYC over the city’s gifted and talented program. It seems that more Manhattan kids than ever are scoring in the 90th percentile and above on the test. Officials are blaming this score inflation on overzealous parents who are hiring toddler tutors and buying commercial prep materials to give their kids a leg up. People commenting on the controversy almost universally condemn parents who prepare their kids for testing as being (and I quote) “pushy,” “insane,” or AWPWTMTOTH (“Annoying White Parents With Too Much Time On Their Hands).

I disagree. I believe that parents who prepare their youngsters for the material covered by IQ tests are “responsible,” “smart,” and not necessarily annoying, white or people with too much time on their hands.

IQ tests are far from perfect. They are inaccurate predictors of a child’s ability to excel in school, especially when given to children as young as four. A child’s brain continues to develop well into her teens and early twenties. A toddler who is struggling with language or fine-motor skills can soar later with the right intervention.

Still, IQ tests do assess the 7-abilities children need for academic success: language, knowledge, math, thinking, memory, spatial, and fine-motor skills. Kids must have these same abilities to excel from the time they start kindergarten until they finish high school. As a parent, it is our job (no, our duty!) to understand these abilities, instill them in our children, and recognize whether or not our kids have them. If a child is missing just one of these abilities, he’ll struggle in school, endure criticism and embarrassment in class, and will likely suffer diminished self-esteem. It sounds harsh, but it’s true.

I know this from experience. My daughter, Schuyler, lacked certain spatial abilities. Unfortunately, we didn’t figure that out until 6th grade. By then, her academic problems had compounded and it was almost impossible to catch up. Schuyler’s school struggles were epic – all for lack of spatial skills. She could not line up numbers for long division, recognize shapes for geometry, or interpret a graph. To this day, I regret that I didn’t understand enough about intellectual development to recognize the underlying cause of my daughter’s school struggles and how I might have helped her. Here is the worst part: She took an IQ test at age-four – the WPPSI-II. Her overall score was good, but she failed two subtests – mazes and block design. This was a huge red flag that she was at risk for having a visual-spatial learning disability. Had I understood that, I could have watched her school performance more carefully and gotten her the right kind of help as soon as she began faltering.

Since I didn’t, here is just one example of what she endured: In seventh grade, the principal of her school came into her classroom and inspected the children’s notebooks. When she saw that Schuyler had failed a geometry exam, she held it up for the whole class to see. “An F! What, are you, stupid?” She said. This happened just a few years ago at New Explorations for Science, Technology and Math (NEST) – an in-demand public school in New York City.

My interest in IQ testing and learning was piqued by Schuyler’s struggles, but I never expected to become an expert on the subject. In fact, I began my career as a lawyer, and then moved to marketing at American Express. When my second child, son, Sam, was 3, something happened that changed the course of all our lives.

Sam was one of those toddlers who had an ear infection every other month. By the time he turned 3, we noticed that he wasn’t developing the way Schuyler had. Eventually, we took him to a doctor who ran a battery of physical and psychological tests.

“I have good news and bad news,” the doctor told us. ”The good news is…Sam’s speech and motor delays stem from the fact that he can’t hear, the result of fluid build up from all his ear infections. Physically, we can fix that.”

“The bad news is that we gave him the WPPSI – the same test he’ll need to take next year to get into school. He failed miserably. I don’t believe he can catch up.” And then came the kicker. ”Mrs. Quinn, no private school in town will accept your son.”

I was devastated. We lived in one of the worst performing public school districts in New York City. With Sam’s delays, I felt he would need the small class size of a private school in order to thrive. I immediately called my mother. I’m lucky. My mother was a Professor of Early Childhood Education. With her guidance, we mapped out a program I could do with Sam at home to build the skills he would need for kindergarten. Every night for about thirty minutes, Sam and I worked together. To him, we were just playing. But in reality, each activity was selected to develop the 7-abilities he would need for testing and school success.

One year later, Sam took the test again. I’ll never forget the call I got from our nursery school director a few weeks later. “Sam’s results are in,” she said. ”You’re never going to believe this, but he made the top score in his class!” Sam was admitted to our first choice school. Today, he’s a bright high school student taking honors and advanced placement classes.

Once I understood the underlying abilities Sam needed to do well on his test and in school, I was able to make sure he had them. I don’t think I was pushy, insane and I certainly did not have too much time on my hands. I did what any good mother would do when faced with the challenge of a learning delayed toddler.

Not long after Sam started kindergarten, American Express laid me off. Before I even packed up my boxes, I knew what I had to do. The experience with Sam inspired me to start a company that would help parents get their children into the best public and private schools in Manhattan. I no longer have this business, but while I was there I taught scores of parents how to work with their children, just as I had Sam. Time and again, they performed so well on their tests that they get into the top city schools.

I am not a professional educator. I am a mother who was forced to figure this out to help her own child. Later, I became a professional, sharing what I knew with other parents so they could help their children, and they did. If you have a young child, I urge you to make sure she has the 7-abilities needed for testing and (more importantly) school success. For tips on ways to instill the 7-abilities, visit Doing this will put your child on the glide path for success whether you send him to a private school, gifted program, or to the local public kindergarten just around the corner.

Karen Quinn is the author of the new book Testing For Kindergarten. She is the "later" mother of two children, Sam and Schuyler. Karen believes that prepping for kindergarten testing is the greatest gift you can give your child.  

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