When our daughters went to preschool back in the '70s in Garden City, New York, we took them in for an interview, and that was about it. The children were toilet-trained and pretty well socialized. To the best of my knowledge, there were no formal assessments of their cognitive skills and so on. As far as their mother and I were concerned, our daughters were gifted children. We never had any formal assessment of our suspicions until the girls were much older at which point testing confirmed that they were indeed gifted.
Is your child gifted or bright? There is a difference. For a detailed explanation of the differences read Gifted vs. Bright: Understanding the Difference
Preschool admissions assessments have changed in the 21st century. Preschools want to know what your child knows and what she is capable of at age two. So, against that backdrop, let's look at some of the more common ways preschools assess their very young applicants. And, perhaps even more important from our point of view as parents, let's try to understand why such testing is necessary.
Common Assessment Tools
The Otis-Lennon School Ability Test is commonly known as Olsat. This test is popular in New York City where it is a requirement for admission into programs for gifted children. The OLSAT traces its roots back to a test developed by Dr. Arthur Sinton Otis known as Army Alpha, which was administered to U.S. Army recruits in World War I.
Another test which you will encounter is the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence™ (WPPSI™-III) Dr. Wechsler was a psychologist perhaps most famous for his tests which measured IQ or Intelligence Quotient. He also developed the assessment test known as WISC. The latest versions of WISC are published by Pearson, one of the leaders in the testing/assessment field. This video explains how the test works.
"The Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence™, or WPPSI™ is often used as part of the entrance process for students identified as potentially gifted and talented. The current version of the recently restructured intelligence test, WPPSI™–IV, features shorter, more game-like activities and simplified scoring procedures. The WPPSI™ or Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence™ is published by NCS Pearson, Inc. (previously Harcourt Assessment, Inc./The Psychological Corporation, the original publisher of the test)." More information here.
Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales About the same time as Dr. Wechsler was developing his IQ tests, a French psychologist, Alfred Binet was developing his own tests. What he was looking for was a way of determining if the subjects being tested were intellectually deficient. "As a battery of cognitive tests, the SB5 advances the assessment of strengths and weaknesses in the cognitive processes of students who may be evaluated for learning disabilities. The SB5 supports early prediction of emerging learning disabilities in children as young as two years old." More information here. Testing expert Karen Quinn gives us an overview of the Stanford-Binet test.
Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities and Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children are two other tests which you might encounter.
"The WJ IV emphasizes the identification of strengths and weaknesses by providing comparisons both within and across each of three batteries: Cognitive Abilities, Achievement, and Oral Language. This comprehensive system offers the ease of use and flexibility examiners need to evaluate learning problems and improve instructional outcomes for children and adults in a way that no other assessment can." More information here. Here is a video overview of the Woodcock-Johnson test.
"The K-ABC was developed to evaluate preschoolers, minority groups, and children with learning disabilities. It is used to provide educational planning and placement, neurological assessment, and research. The assessment is to be administered in a school or clinical setting and is intended for use with English speaking, bilingual, or nonverbal children. There is also a Spanish edition that is to be used with children whose primary language is Spanish." More information here.
What are they looking for?
When you are asked if your child can be tested, you probably are wondering why and what could they be looking for. These tests can help schools determine two things: they can help predict future educational success, and they can identify special needs. Testing can quantify what you probably already know, as well as suggesting areas of concern, particularly in those crucial first five years of a child's life and development.
Frankly, as a parent, I want to know where my children stand. I want to understand their strengths and their weaknesses. That understanding allows me to find the most suitable educational environment for each child. Having raised four children, I can tell you unequivocally that each child is a unique individual. And that is as it should be. Where the testing referenced above is invaluable is that it alerts us to the different ways in which our children learn. I feel that understanding how my children learned motivated me to find the right kind of schools for them. The one size fits all approach in education doesn't work very well. The gifted child needs to be stretched. The bright child needs to be kept busy. The child who needs extra help with math needs more time and probably more individual instruction. Testing at an early age gives us parents valuable insights into how our children learn.
Be aware that not every school uses these assessments as part of their admissions testing. Many schools will rely on an interview and years of experience to decide if a child is ready for preschool. You need to be ready for some sort of screening as part of the admissions process. Equally important for most schools is your acceptance of the school's educational philosophy. This is particularly true if you want to get your child into a Montessori or Waldorf school which are fairly doctrinaire about how and what they teach.
Is tutoring necessary?
What about tutoring your son or daughter for the test? Is it necessary? Personally, I would advise making sure that your child understands that there will be a test, although I probably wouldn't call it a test. It never hurts for her to know generally what to expect. I think that age four is a little early to be tutoring. If your child is brilliant and gifted and well-socialized, she will more than likely make the grade without tutoring. Having said that, some professional test preparation services and consultants advise preparation for the testing in cases where you are seeking admission to a very competitive preschool. You are more likely to find that to be the case in major urban areas such as New York City and Chicago, for example.
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