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No More Gaming the Private School System

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Preschool, private school, gifted and talented, and high school entrance exams have become pretty high stakes over the years. So have the pre-college bubble tests like the ACT and SAT. Parents, convinced that their kids' future rides on the scores, looked for ways to have an edge over other kids. Thus, a private test-prep industry was born, fed on parental anxiety.

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But some of those staffing the entry gates have asked whether a system that could so easily be gamed actually produced the desired results. In New York City, leaders of a group of the most elite private schools, not only asked, but answered. And now 130 private elementary schools will drop the requirement that every child submit to the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence.

Known more commonly as the ERB, it tested 4- and 5-year-olds on things like vocabulary and shapes. Students were selected for incoming classes based on how they performed on the ERB, in addition to parent and student interviews, classroom observations and preschool recommendations.

The problem, though, was that a whole industry for ERB prepping took the meaning out of the results. This high-priced prepping has gone on for years, and now the schools are finally doing something about it. Some schools will continue to use it, but the vast majority want to find another way.

I often wonder what happens to those whose achievements were made through rigorous but, in the end, meaningless instruction on how to simply score well on a test.

This isn't just a problem of the very elite gaming a system that already favors them. Middle-class parents, too, are looking for ways to get their kids any advantages available. In public schools, this often means getting placed in a gifted and talented program. In New York City schools, this also requires a test, for which there is plenty of paid prep coursework. In other places around the country, admittance is based on IQ tests, demonstrating an objective amount of creativity, simply being one of the better students in a class or parent involvement in the school. Either way, parents who hope their kids will be selected find out minimum criteria for entry—and get down to business.

Dropping the ERB in Manhattan won't exactly be the great equalizer—most of these private schools still serve the already very advantaged. Still, there are some creative ideas being attempted at other schools as a way to get qualified candidates who may not have been born into the educational 1 percent. Will other schools at any level reconsider their criteria for admission?

Bard College, for example, decided it would accept four 2,500-word research papers in lieu of SAT scores and good grades in high school. (Though now that opens up the market for research paper sales and/or coaching.)

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Chris Hayes, author of Twilight of the Elites, an excellent book about the cloudy results of what we Americans think of as a meritocracy, suggests lottery drawings for classroom seats for everything from preschools to Harvard freshman classes. It's radical, but gives everyone an equal chance of getting in. Staying in is another question. But I often wonder what happens to those whose achievements were made through rigorous but, in the end, meaningless instruction on how to simply score well on a test. Can they make it through freshman year at a highly selective university? Are they really the better candidate for taking up the last carpet square at story time?

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