Gifted and Talented Programs in NYC 2010 – Increase in High-Scoring Students

The number of students qualifying for gifted kindergarten programs in New York City public school districts rose by 10 percent this year, and those qualifying for the elite citywide program jumped by a third, raising the possibility that parents and their children have begun to master an admission process that was retooled three years ago.

According to figures released Friday by the Department of Education, the spike in students eligible for gifted programs occurred despite a 16 percent drop in the number who took the exams. The city described the decrease as a “leveling off” after an increase in test-takers last year, which they attributed to a publicity campaign.

Of the 12,454 in New York City who took the test this winter, 3,542 (or 26 percent) scored at or above the national 90th percentile, up from 3,231 the year before, qualifying them for one of the 70 gifted kindergarten programs spread through the city’s school districts. But the most striking increase occurred in the number of children scoring at or above the national 97th percentile: 1,788, up from 1,345 last year. Those students qualify for one of the five citywide gifted programs, which have only about 300 seats in all, meaning the competition for them this year will be even fiercer.

Already, the bar for admission to at least one of the citywide programs, the Anderson School on the Upper West Side, has been raised to the 99th percentile for most of its 50 seats. Almost 300 parents whose children scored that high attended recent daytime tours.

Anna Lewiston of the Upper East Side was determined to send her daughter, Lena, to Anderson but was told that the girl’s 97th-percentile score would not make the cut. Lena will go to a private school. “It’s really too much pressure for preschoolers,” Ms. Lewiston said of the test.

Another citywide program, the Brooklyn School of Inquiry in Gravesend, allowed 540 parents on tours before turning others away. The principal, Donna Taylor, said she noticed growing anxiety among them when they saw the odds of getting one of her 56 slots.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. Children who are not selected for citywide programs are eligible for district-based gifted programs; students may also enroll in regular kindergarten classes at their neighborhood schools.

The cause of the higher passing rates was not clear, but increased preparation might have been a factor. Hundreds of parents hired tutors or bought commercial test preparation materials before taking this year’s test, a mixture of the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, a reasoning exam, and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment.

At the Perry School, a preschool in the West Village, children spent an hour a day in a “think tank program” designed to expose them to the reasoning and materials they would see during the test. They also had professional tutoring. Of the five students who took the gifted exam, “we got two 99s, a 98, and two 97s,” said Dawn Ifrah, the founder.

Bright Kids NYC, the tutoring company that worked with those children, reported that 80 percent of the 120 children for whom it had results had scored over the 90th percentile, and 60 children had scored in the 99th.

Department of Education officials acknowledged that preparation may have played a role but said they were confident that most children who passed belonged in accelerated classes. They added that the city was trying to increase the number of full-day preschools in poor, black and Hispanic neighborhoods, which are underrepresented in the gifted programs.

Anna Commitante, who heads the gifted and talented program, said the city “may very well think about something different” after next year, when its contract with testing companies expires. But officials later said no policy change was under consideration.

Susan K. Johnsen, the president of the Association for the Gifted, a division of the Council for Exceptional Children, recommends the use of many measures to assess giftedness, like observation, recommendations and student work, not simply tests. “Any test is susceptible to test preparation, and that’s why you start to invalidate those assessments,” Dr. Johnsen said.

The increase in high-scoring students was concentrated in the middle- and upper-middle-class districts of Manhattan and Queens. In the Bronx, fewer students qualified this year.

In District 3, which includes the Upper West Side, 455 children, a full 47 percent of those who took the test, scored at or over the 90th percentile, and 250 scored at or over the 97th, compared with 218 last year. In Manhattan’s District 2, 44 percent of the test-takers qualified, and 341 pupils got top scores, a 42 percent increase.

In the past, the city’s 32 school districts used diverse criteria for gifted admission, but the city made the test the sole factor in 2008, in part to address allegations of favoritism and the overrepresentation of white children in the programs. Yet nearly 70 percent of students in the programs are white or Asian, the reverse of the racial composition of the school system as a whole.