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Test Early and Often

Test Early and Often

by Will Huntsberry

Check out Will’s final product on WNYC here.

Audio:

 

Original Master’s Project:

 

Script:

Will Huntsberry

Class of 2014

Test Early and Often

Advisor: Habiba Nosheen

 

Section 1

 

Welcome to a Test Prep center

 

NARR:

 

The waiting room of Bright Kids in New York City looks like a typical pediatricians office. Lots of parents on ipads, lots of little kids playing with toy cars. But this isn’t a doctor’s office. It’s a place where four year olds practice the art of standardized test taking.

 

Every so often a grad student type walks out and calls one of the children.

 

AMBI:

 

Is there a Ryan Frank here?

 

NARR:

 

The kids are led down a narrow hallway past lots of tiny evaluation rooms.

 

AMBI:

 

We’re going to go to the Orange Room.

 

NARR:

 

If you want to get your child into a gifted program in New York City, you have to start early. Kids take a standardized test that decides their fate at four years old.

 

And the standardized test has paved the way for Bright Kids to make a booming business. Parents pay 1200 bucks for an 8-session “boot camp” that teaches their four-year old how to take a test.

 

Meet Oscar

See what test prep looks like.

 

OSCAR:

 

I’m four. My name is Oscar.

 

NARR:

 

Oscar Ripley is in the pink room, one of several tiny evaluation rooms identified by color. He’s working with his tutor Justin.

 

JUSTIN:

 

Ok, so I’m gonna read you some problems…

 

NARR:

 

Oscar and Justin sit at a kid-sized table, looking at an Ipad. Oscar is looking at a multiple choice problem. He is looking at a series of pictures that make a pattern. He has to choose the missing picture.

 

JUSTIN:

 

ok see if you can do number 4 on your own.

 

OSCAR:

 

I can’t.

 

NARR:

 

Oscar has been at it for 20 minutes and he’s been asking for a break.

 

JUSTIN:

 

Try your best to do it.

 

OSCAR:

 

Maybe I do know.

 

JUSTIN:

 

I think you do know….

 

NARR:

 

Oscar stares at four choices on the screen and taps one.

 

JUSTIN:

 

Number three good job Oscar! Can I have a high five? How did you know it was number three?

 

OSCAR:

 

Because…

 

JUSTIN:

 

Can you use your words?

 

OSCAR:

 

There’s one on the top and one on the bottom. One on the side and one on the side.

 

JUSTIN:

 

Good so you looked at the pattern. I’m so proud of you.

 

Getting four year olds to focus is difficult

 

NARR:

 

One of the most important things test prep teaches… is that children learn to be alone in a room with a stranger whose giving them a test.

 

The test lasts roughly 45 minutes… Which can also be a long time for a four-year old to sit still. Bright Kids allows them to practice stamina.

 

And it seems to be working. 90 percent of the kids who did the Bright Kids boot camp last year qualified for a gifted program. 34 percent got the highest score possible.

 

One of the ways they get results is by teaching test taking strategy…

 

JUSTIN:

 

remember there’s always going to be answer. in these games there’s always going to be an answer. we only have two more questions and then I’ll give you your promised break. so for number five what goes in the empty box.

 

OSCAR:

 

I. don’t. know.

 

JUSTIN:

 

ok but I think you should at least guess. when you’re playing a game you should always guess. just point to one of the numbers. of these five pics which one do you think that it is. even if you’re not 100 percent sure you should always guess when you’re playing a game.

 

NARR:

 

In order to keep test prep as stress free as possible, Oscar’s parents tell him he’s going to “game camp.” But as Justin and Oscar work on the problems it becomes clear that it’s difficult for Oscar to focus.

 

JUSTIN:

 

so what do you think the answer is?

 

OSCAR:

 

I have eyes everywhere. I have eyes here. I have eyes here. and I have eyes here.

 

JUSTIN:

 

that’s great you have so many eyes. because to do these activities you need eyes to tell me what goes in the box.

 

OSCAR:

 

you can’t even see my eyes because they’re inside my blood.

 

JUSTIN:

 

Okkkk. Let’s just answer number six and then we’re going to take a break.

 

OSCAR:

 

I’m more tired.

 

How Oscar makes sense of test prep

 

NARR:

 

During his break, this is how Oscar makes sense of “game camp.”

 

JUSTIN:

 

what do the kids do in all the different rooms?

 

OSCAR:

 

they do what we’re doing. they’re doing this.

 

JUSTIN:

 

doing this? what’s this?

 

OSCAR:

 

figuring out which is which.

 

JUSTIN:

 

figuring out which is which, that’s a good way to put it.

 

NARR:

 

Figuring out whether or not 4-year olds like Oscar are really “gifted” isn’t easy.

 

When New York decided to use a standardized test seven years ago, officials insisted that it would make the gifted entry process more fair.

 

But the new system has come under fire. Critics say that children like Oscar get a leg up against other kids who can’t afford a tutor. And the numbers seem to support that.

 

Increasingly, gifted programs across the city look more and more like Oscar’s family—white and affluent.

 

And because fewer minorities are getting into the program, gifted programs in poorer parts of the city have been closing down. Meanwhile in the wealthier parts of town new programs keep opening.

 

The city refuses to release specific data on the racial percentages of the gifted and talented program. Nonetheless several schools have acknowledged a majority of white and Asian children—even though those two ethnicities make up just 30 percent of the school system.

Section 2

 

Staten Island info session

DOE says test prep not needed

 

NARR:

 

In a school auditorium on Staten Island about 100 families have gathered to hear about the gifted test. The Department of Education holds these information sessions each year. A female administrator of the gifted program is talking to the crowd.

 

DOE OFFICIAL:

 

Thank you all for coming out tonight.

 

NARR:

 

The sound quality on this isn’t great, because I wasn’t allowed to get very close to the speaker.

 

The sessions walk parents through the process of applying to the test and then taking it.

 

At the end, Parents pass notecards to the front with questions. Inevitably the most popular topic is test prep.

 

OFFICIAL:

 

There’s really nothing that you need to do other than go over the practice items that we have provided you.

 

NARR:

 

In case you missed that, she said, There’s really nothing you need to do other than go over the items we’ve provided you.

 

Those items included sample test questions given out at these information sessions and also posted online.

 

OFFICIAL:

 

You can then if you want create your own questions based on the questions that we gave to you. That’s what test prep companies are doing.

 

They’re making up their own questions as they look at our questions and kind of do variations on those types of questions. So if you’re interested in doing something extra for your child don’t feel like you have to go to any of those test prep companies you can do it yourself.

 

NARR:

 

Creating your own questions isn’t as easy as the speaker might think.

 

Bright Kids, the test prep center, employees a full time team of people to create questions based on research by education experts into what will be on the test.

 

The thought that parents can create their own questions which would be just as effective… That’s a thought many experts say is just ludicrous.

 

BORLAND:

 

I don’t know what to say expect that’s patently false. That’s ridiculous.

 

NARR:

 

That’s James Borland. He studies gifted education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College in New York.

 

BORLAND:

 

There’s tons of data that shows that test preparation is effective. Teaching people things helps them learn those things. Teaching people how to take tests helps them take tests.

 

Origins of the Test

 

 

NARR:

 

To understand today’s pre-school prep industry, you have to go back to 2007 when the city started using a standardized test to measure giftedness.

 

Before 2007, there was no standardized measure for testing giftedness. Each of New York’s 32 school districts decided in a different way. Some used standardized tests that were also combined with teacher evaluations.

 

Critics argued that the evaluations were too subjective. Here’s Eric Nadelstern, a top administrator at the time the decision was made.

 

NADELSTERN:

 

I think what the mayor and chancellor were reacting to was that the criteria for gifted had become so watered down by 2002-03 until the policy changed that it had become meaningless.

 

NARR:

 

That would be Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein, a lawyer with no previous education experience.

 

They argued that putting in place one standardized would equalize the playing field.

 

There was only one problem. Here’s the gifted expert James Borland again:

 

BORLAND:

 

Everyone knows, including the folks at the department of education, that standardized tests advantage more affluent children and disadvantage children from less advantageous backgrounds.

 

as educators they had to know what the outcomes would be

 

NARR:

 

Standardized tests always favor more affluent children says Borland.

 

But they favor affluent four-year olds in particular.

 

BORLAND:

 

If you’re looking at preschoolers and kindergarteners they haven’t been in school very long so their primary influence is the family.

 

NARR:

 

Studies show that affluent kids come to school with more knowledge than their peers. They also perform that much better on standardized tests.

 

That doesn’t mean poor children are naturally less “gifted.”

 

But if educators knew that moving to a standardized test would shut out poor kids why did they do it?

 

Eric Nadelstern, the former administrator:

 

NADELSTERN:

 

I think the chancellor being the kind of lawyer and manager that he is gave every important decision considerable thought.

 

I do think it’s a kind of legalistic decision that is equity under the law. I think there’s a place for that and I think there’s instances where that doesn’t result in best solution or policy and I think this might be the case here.

 

HUNTSBERRY:

 

Do you think around that time we were just in a period where… there was an overreliance on standardized tests?

 

NADELSTERN:

 

I have enormous respect for the mayor… I had even more respect for the chancellor but I do believe both placed too much reliance on standardized tests.

 

NARR:

 

Using only one measure—like a standardized test—to decide whether or not a child is gifted, flies in the face of industry best practice according to Borland, the gifted education professor.

 

BORLAND:

 

New York City Department of Education is at great odds with the professional standards in the field of gifted and talented education. I’ve encountered very few people who defend what the city is doing.

 

NARR:

 

For this story, in fact, no one would defend it. Despite weeks of calls and emails to department officials no one was made available for comment.

 

Nadelstern, who worked under Bloomberg’s administration, was at odds with the decision, himself. He hoped they would add other measures besides the test.

 

NADELSTERN:

 

we were dealing with so much…. That it just didn’t seem to be a fight worth fighting. I directed my attention elsewhere. It was not part of my immediate portfolio and it was easily overlooked

 

NARR:

 

Overlooking the program has lead to disastrous consequences, says Borland.

 

BORLAND:

 

we are providing these programs disproportionately to children who are already advantaged and withholding them from children that are disadvantaged thereby widening the gulf between the haves and the have nots in our society…

 

NARR:

 

The gap is particulary noticeable from district to district.

 

BORLAND:

 

You see marked discrepancies if you look at district 2 on the Upper East Side. Last year, over 1,400 kids qualified in District 2 for citywide and district gifted and talented programs. Whereas in District 7 in the Bronx, there was a total of 19.

 

[TOO MUCH SPACE]

 

NARR:

 

You heard that right. 1400 kids qualified as gifted in district 2, New York’s richest school district—and 19 in the South Bronx, the poorest school district.

 

Section 3

 

Meet Hodari

A mother striving to join the club

 

NARR:

 

Back in the Bright Kids lobby, Hodari Wells is the only African American parent in the room. She’s waiting on her son Aiveri. He’s seven.

 

HODARI:

 

Aiveri is preparing for the gifted and talented test going into third grade. This is his last shot [he’s taken it twice before DELETE] so we’re hoping bright kids preps him enough to get into the program.

 

NARR:

 

Hodari and Aiveri are from Crown Heights, Brooklyn a part of the city where programs have closed due to so few kids passing the test.

 

It’s Aiveri’s last shot because he’s in second grade, which is the last chance for kids to qualify until middle school. Aiveri has already taken the test twice, but hasn’t made the cut… So he’s trying again.

 

HODARI:

 

I just think he needs to focus, that’s the whole thing. Preparing him to know what’s on the test and to focus. he’s a typical boy. He just turned 7. He’s very energetic. I just need him to pull it all together.

 

NARR:

Even if he does score high enough this year, his chances of actually getting into a program are slim, because the majority of open seats come from children who move or switch classes.

 

But Hodari thinks a gifted class could improve Aiveri’s future.

 

Hodari couldn’t afford it on her own, so Aiveri’s grandfather is paying for this test prep bootcamp.

 

HODARI:

 

I’m hopping gifted and talented will give him a better education overall, more challenging education and something that fits him a little better.

 

Cuz I’m setting him up for the rest of his education for the rest of his life. It’s a big deal. I didn’t realize it was such a big deal when I had him but that’s what I learned.

 

Meet Aiveri in test prep

 

NARR: [lead with sound of pencil on paper.]

 

Around the corner in the green room, Hodari’s son Aiveri has his face pressed to a desk doodling. He’s working with Adam.

 

ADAM:

 

I’m glad you’re drawing these, but on test they aren’t gonna let you write on the test other than to bubble in your answer.

 

can you remmebr all that?

 

AIVERI:

 

mmmm-hmmmm.

 

NARR:

 

Adam is teaching Aiveri tips for gaming the test. Eliminate the answers that look wrong and then guess from whatever choices are left.

 

As Adam goes through the rest of the problem, Aiveri’s mind seems to wander. He continues to doodle and plays with his pencil [ambi] often not looking at the problem in front of him.

 

Aiveri’s next problem is to size up a pattern

 

AIVERI:

 

This line goes here and this line goes here and the big line goes here.

 

NARR:

 

Aiveri leans in closer and closer to the pattern hoping for some inspiration.

 

AIVERI:

 

mah mah mah what would the fox say?

 

I think it’s number two.

 

HUNTSBERRY:

 

Is that what the fox would say? [laughing]

 

AIVERI:

 

I guess.

 

ADAM:

 

Do you like that song? That’s awesome… you just made my day aiveri. I’m going to go to a dinner party and tell people about you.

 

AIVERI:

 

Nooooooo.

 

ADAM:

 

No it’s because you’re so smart. And you quoted a Norwegian pop song.

 

The pressure for Aiveri

 

HODARI:

 

Well the first time we came here for his diagnostic test he cried.

 

NARR:

 

Aiveri’s mom says she worries that Aiveri might be stressing too much because she told him this is his last shot to pass the test.

 

HODARI:

 

I shouldn’t have told him that. That was my fault. I was just trying to hype him up like, “Aiveri you can do it, you can do it, it’s your last chance.” But I think it might have backfired a little bit.

 

NARR:

 

Hodari thought applying a little pressure might help Aiveri reach his peak performance.

 

HODARI:

 

I just want him to do his best. If he does his best I can take it or leave it. I’m not that crazy.

 

[pause a beat or two]

 

Not compared against peers

What is best solution?

 

NARR:

 

Neither the former administrator Eric Nadelstern nor the gifted expert James Borland believe the standardized test has to be abolished completely.

 

They just think it’s being overused. Here’s Borland the gifted education professor:

 

BORLAND:

 

Using a standardized approach across the whole city as if the city were a homogeneous mass of monolithic families and students makes no sense.

 

NARR:

 

What Borland means is that kids in the city aren’t currently compared against their peers from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

 

Even if you grow up in a low-income district in the South Bronx or Central Brooklyn, your scores are compared against kids from Manhattan whose parents are more likely to be able to afford expensive test prep.

 

BORLAND:

 

The results today, they’re just shocking. The preponderance of white and Asian American kids in these programs or more importantly the rarity of African American and Latino kids verges on being a citywide scandal.

 

NARR:

 

But Borland says there’s an easy fix. Whatever measure you choose, make sure children are compared against children in their own school or neighborhood, not New York City as a whole.

 

For Borland there are only two conclusions you can draw from the current distribution of children in gifted programs.

 

BORLAND:

 

One is that poor children and children of color are “less gifted” than more affluent children. If you reject that conclusion which I do then the only valid conclusion you can draw is that the Department of Education is doing something wrong.

 

NARR:

 

One Brooklyn principal believed the Department’s approach was so wrong that she took matters into her own hands. Diversity in the programs at her Ditmas Park school were so lacking that she shut them down.

 

In a letter to parents she wrote, “We believe in equity and access for all children.”

 

She went on to say:

 

“We want all children at PS 139 to have equal access to high quality, challenging curriculum and to have ample opportunities to master complex material and build academic and personal self-confidence. We also want our classes to reflect the diversity of our community. We believe we can have both.”

 

Section 4

 

Oscar’s Test day

Meet his family

 

NARR:

 

The big day has finally come for Oscar. His parents are waiting for him in a school auditorium in Park Slope, Brooklyn, near where they recently bought a house.

 

Lots of other parents are spread out across the auditorium trying to control their kids. Several are knitting while they wait.

 

Oscar’s Mom Meg wonders whether he had enough rest the night before.

 

MEG:

 

He totally didn’t go to bed before 9 and he usually goes to bed between 7 and 730.

 

HUNTSBERRY:

 

Are you nervous at all?

 

MEG:

 

I’m not nervous. I’m just happy that he was so excited to go in. There’s been a couple kids in tears having to be sort of coaxed away. So I got a kiss and a hug and a see ya later. So I couldn’t ask for a better attitude.

 

I’m excited to see what oscar’s demeanor will be like… if he doesn’t feel a certain amount of success coming out he does pout. So I think his attitude will be telling.

 

Not that they will tell him right or wrong but I’m excited to see how he’s acting. Hopefully he’ll be bouncing.

 

Meg and Steve

Wonder what they could’ve done different

 

NARR:

 

Meg waits with her husband Steve as students begin to trickle out of the test.

 

MEG:

 

I saw parents with like prep materials… They were looking at them together with their kids. It was funny.

 

STEVE:

 

yeah people are crazy for this stuff. It’s important, but then again…

 

MEG:

 

yeah but I felt a twinge like yeah I could’ve brought the books, like in that moment.

 

STEVE:

 

I mean, if you think about the last time you were in school. I used to cram at 3 am before a college test but you know it’s a little different for a four year old, I think, than an 18 year old.

 

MEG:

 

but in all fairness having a few minutes to warm up is probably not the worst idea. Like “oh yeah, I remember these, I remember these.”

 

Oscar finishes test

 

MEG AND STEVE: [unison]

 

Oscar! Oscarrr! Hey buddy.

 

MEG AND STEVE:

 

Was it good? Was it good?

 

MEG:

 

How do you think you did?

 

OSCAR:

 

Ummmm. I did some puzzles.

 

STEVE:

 

did you get all the answers right?

 

did you teach all the adults how to do it.

 

OSCAR:

 

I don’t know.

 

STEVE:

 

You don’t know.

 

NARR:

 

Oscar doesn’t answer many of his parents questions and runs off to play with other kids in the auditorium.

 

MEG:

 

I think he’s ok. he smiled and he said good.

 

he does look like he’s tired but we’re getting into that time of the day.

 

he’s seems good. he seems good.

 

NARR:

 

Now the waiting game begins. Oscar and Aiveri and everyone who took the test will wait at least two months to find out their results.

 

Last year the testing company botched the results. Some parents were told their children passed, when in fact they didn’t.

 

Post Script:

I did a lot of education stories in my RW1 class and generally developed good education sources. From these sources I learned about growing inequality in the gifted program in New York. This was not my first choice as a story and the inequality had been largely already been documented.

The part of this story that appealed to my adviser was the test prep industry that has sprung up around the gifted program. She wanted me to get access to one of these places and eventually that’s what happened. I almost went with an online company, but that would have been a huge detriment to the piece. The online company’s provide materials for parents to use. Instead I managed to get into a tutoring center where four year olds worked with strangers. This made for great tape.

I spent every Saturday at the test prep center for two months. It was difficult and tedious and I worked with several parents along the way. Only two made it into the final piece, but I interviewed more than a dozen families and sat in on dozens of test prep sessions.