Getting Into Kindergarten in New York City Will Remain Stressful

The city's private schools may stop using a decades-old kindergarten admissions test, but the change is unlikely to have a real impact.

Radovan Stoklasa/Reuters

Well-to-do New York parents bring a particular laser focus and set of resources to educating their kids, whether it’s battling the Department of Education over rezoning an upper-middle class neighborhood or hiring a “personal statement coach” to massage a teenager’s college essay.

But at some point, over the past year or so, the Independent School Admissions Association of Greater New York —a non-profit composed of around a 140 of the area’s elite private schools— felt private-school kindergarten admissions had gotten out of hand. A task force commissioned by the group found that wealthier parents were paying for tutors to prep their kids for the “ERB,” as it’s commonly known: a test that many schools require their young applicants to take. The head of the group told the New York Times that the test was now “tainted” by these over-eager parents. So last week, after four decades, the association announced that it was no longer endorsing the test for kindergarten admissions.

The administrators of the test, unsurprisingly, question the claim that test-prep efforts were actually inflating children’s scores. Elizabeth Mangas, vice president of admissions testing for the ERB, points to the company’s own data, which found no substantial increase in scores over the last decade, nor any significant evidence of an upward trend in children scoring at the 90th and 98th percentiles.

But it appears there is one way test prep succeeds: It increases a child’s overall anxiety level about the test and the kindergarten admissions process as a whole.  And that anxiety is unlikely to go away, even if the ERB gets eliminated.

“It makes me really sad that four-year-olds are getting this kind of tutoring,” said Dr. Nancy Close, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at Yale’s Child Study Center, who never recommends test prep at the preschool level. “I wish parents could feel more confident in the way they are parenting, whether reading to their children, or helping them develop socially, all of the intangibles that a child takes into a testing situation.”

Close says that the ERB and other developmental assessments like it are a rather benign experience for most toddlers.  The ERB, administered to an individual pre-schooler by a child-studies expert, takes around 45 minutes and has two parts: the verbal, which covers vocabulary, similarities, and listening comprehension, and  “the non verbal” where a toddler interacts with pictures and blocks.  Afterwards, a child is compared to students his or her age, by both year and month, in the national population. A parent receives three percentile scores, one for each section and one overall test score.

The problem, according to Close, isn’t the test itself, but the fact that children have great radars. They are fully aware and sensitive to an adult’s reaction to the admissions process, and when a parent gets fixated on a particular school, they too can feel quite anxious about it.

Launa Schweizer, a humanities teacher at Brooklyn Heights Montessori, and a former lower school head of one of New York’s leading private schools, agrees that the ERB test itself isn’t the root of the problem.

“It’s the cost, the stress, and the potential for people to try to game the system,” Schweizer says. And since the city’s private schools are already very tight and the parents who apply to them tend to be high powered, these factors are amplified.

Take the parents who consider a 99 in each section of the ERB a “status symbol” or the wealthy couple who celebrated their daughter’s high scores with a catered bash for her preschool friends in the Hamptons. It’s hard to believe these New Yorkers will suddenly become rational, well-adjusted parents because this particular admissions test has been phased out.

Indeed, there is already trepidation about what exactly will replace the ERB.  After all, it’s not as though there’s any indication that New York private schools are overhauling their admissions standards or revamping private school culture. Without a relatively non-threatening, single, streamlined exam, private schools may subject their youngest applicants to multiple tests, each a different procedure. Where previous children had to sit through one ERB assessment, they’ll now be stuck going through the rigmarole eight or ten times, depending on how many schools their parents apply to (fast-forward to a world of school specific test prep and ten “mini-ERBs”).

“Without the ERB, I think the interview is going to be more important and challenging,” predicts Stephanie Sigal, a licensed Manhattan speech therapist who has also offered Kindergarten prep for the past 12 years, and says she’s heard rumblings that schools are already stepping up the interview component. “I think my job will be just as central or more central to the kindergarten process,” Sigal says, “as parents realize that they want their child do the best they can on that part of the application too.”

Sigal wonders if now schools will start reading a non-fiction book to a group of applicants (about how a cocoon becomes a butterfly or the solar system for example), and then ask the four-year-olds to make a series of inferences based on the material. Once again, it’s a skill or format the same New York parents can (and likely will) hire tutors like Sigal to teach their preschooler.

Reducing parental anxiety would require a radical change in how New York schools compose their incoming classes. For example, instead of making a kindergarten out of students who have reached certain developmental benchmarks by age four, a school might seek a range of children of different abilities.

Steve Nelson, head of the Upper West Side’s Calhoun School says his school doesn’t use the ERB, not only because they’re against toddler testing but also because it objects to the message the test sends parents: that kindergarten programs should already sort children into a hierarchy.

“Everybody knows some kids will walk at nine months and some at 15 months,” says Nelson, “the same way some four-year olds may appear to be reading and other seven-year olds may not. But in the vast majority of cases, this has absolutely no future impact on their development.”

For that reason, he says, Calhoun wants an “authentically diverse group of kids,” who are at different stages in their young lives. If more schools adopted this attitude, it would have a far greater impact than getting rid of a test: It could relieve the pressure on families--and their four-year-old applicants.