Monday, January 26, 2009


In a week of large steps for Americans, my four year old daughter took a small one. Thursday, I drove her to the psychology department of a nearby university, where she took her first test. On her behalf, my husband and I have applied to gifted schools in the Chicago Public Schools system, hoping she’ll be selected to attend one next year when she starts kindergarten.

Of course, it’s not the first time she has been tested. Within minutes of birth, like all children born in contemporary US hospitals, she’d been given the Apgar test. She got a perfect score, and when the doctors told us she had exceptionally good color for a newborn, I felt an unreasonable flush of pride. My husband commented later that he too was amused to find himself proud of her Apgar numbers, but we couldn’t help it. After more than 20 years as students, our emotional response to tests of any sort were well primed.

All the same, last week’s intelligence test felt monumental, a significant turning point in my daughter’s life. It was the first collection of data on her mind. Until Thursday, her mind was uncharted, unrecorded, and therefore private, her own. Her teachers have told us about what she draws, how she plays, her social skills, and how she’s developing in terms of school readiness, but that’s anecdotal. I’ve written emails and letters about her to family and friends, again anecdotal. I think about her thinking, but until now, her mind has been territory solely for her, her friends, her family, and others who know her personally and care about her. As of last week’s test, however, her mind is a public enterprise. Data has been collected, and the Chicago Public School System is the first of no doubt many institutions to start passing judgment on how she ranks compared to others. Expectations are different. Her mind, in one important way, is now public.

We could “go off the grid” educationally speaking, of course, but I believe strongly in public schooling, and I want her to be part of it. The test drove home what a significant choice that is.

It felt monumental to me, at least. I’d told her that she was taking a test, and told her that she should do her best but not worry too much about it, and she followed my instructions. She was curious, interested, and proud when the tester told her she’d “done good work”, but to her the afternoon seemed to be a lark – a chance to leave preschool early and spend extra time with her mom, with the promise of a cookie later, with the chance to run along the sidewalks chasing the geese that were wandering the campus.

After the test was over, my daughter and I set out in search of the treat I’d promised. We sat at a table in the student center, and she ate two doughnuts. (Not usually allowed, but I figured there ought to be some reward for conforming to adult expectations so cooperatively.) “Mommy,” she asked, “am I done taking tests now?” “Yes”, I answered, “that’s the only one . . . well, no. No. No, you’re really not done. Not at all. I mean, you don’t have to take any more before kindergarten, but once you get to school there are lots more. Lots.” I stopped talking, rather than scare her to pieces about this whole schooling enterprise. That evening we went to a basketball game, where she ate popcorn and danced in the aisles when the cheer squad performed. When we got home, she threw up.


Anonymous said...

So not only is the young lady taking her first test, she's also making her first comment on the whole thing! And very articulately, too.

Anonymous said...

I hate tests. They make me want to throw up.

Sejal said...

I enjoyed reading this, Amy. Thought-provoking.

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece!

One question that occurs to me is that -- given that you are choosing not only public schooling, but specifically public school for gifted kids -- how would you recommend that such schools go about selecting their student body, if not via some kind of testing? That is to say, I certainly believe that the constant drive of the educational establishment to evaluate the achievement of little kids is... unhelpful? absurd? But a school for gifted kids necessarily implies *some* sort of a priori evaluation, so I don't quite see how you could get around it in this context. (Or are you skeptical about the premise of selective public schooling in the first place, but think that this particular school happens to be the best practical option around?)

Jennifer Rahn said...

It doesn't seem to get better with age either. My daughter, now in college (and who went through similar testing as a preschooler) called the other night with a panic attack. She hadn't registered for the GRE, and was certain that she wouldn't get into graduate school, and the litany of problems continued. Finally, I had a chance to squeeze in a couple words. "What graduate schools are you thinking about?" She had a couple, but hasn't done much research. "Do they require the GRE?" She wasn't sure. "When do you plan to apply?" She feared that because her friends were beginning the application process for medical school, that meant that she needed to as well. So much anxiety over what is perceived as a "life or death" situation. We need to teach our kids that tests are not life, and that a less-than-desired result is not the end. If she had internalized the comments of the evaluator for preschool, and her second-grade teacher, she would probably be stocking shelves at Wal-Mart. I guess I should be happy that her anxiety revolves around graduate school!

Amy Shuffelton said...

In response to AB:

I think I'm skeptical about the premise in the first place, also about intelligence testing of 4 year olds. I think it's probably true that some people are more intelligent than others, but the minds of 4 year olds are such wild cards. Even more than the intelligence of adults, I suspect theirs works in curious ways. Also, other parents have told... Read More me that a key part of preparation for these tests is getting your kid comfortable heading off with a cheery stranger, which has nothing to do with smarts.

So in short, I don't think there is any way to get around testing, but I think the whole business is screwy. I feel sucked in -- don't want to make my child sit through uninspiring teaching for the sake of my principles, but the whole business sits as heavy as a bag of hostess doughnuts.