New York City has a long history of providing gifted education to its children; there are dozens of programs scattered around the city, and several self-contained gifted schools. Stuyvesant, for instance, on the high school level, is internationally known. This being New York, the gifted programs are also quite diverse, with students -- many of them new immigrants -- speaking dozens of languages in their homes.
Of course, this is also an extremely competitive city, with all the usual problems of under-performing public schools. So getting into the city's gifted programs has also been a highly sought-after good for families. Private school is expensive, and comes with its own hassles. The city has used gifted programs as a way to lure middle and upper class families into the public schools, but such families are not arranged randomly around the city. Plus, some gifted programs have been located in dangerous neighborhoods, making parents disinclined to send their children there.
As a result, there has been a patchwork of entrance requirements for different programs over the years. Getting into some programs -- for instance, on the Upper West Side -- has been more difficult than getting into others.
This past year, New York has attempted to make the system a bit more fair and equitable. And frankly, I think they've hit on a reasonable solution. Right now, across the city's elementary schools, kindergartners, first and second graders are all taking the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT), and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment (BSRA). Previously, parents had to request testing. Now it is done as a matter of course. The OLSAT, which measures logical thinking and reasoning ability, accounts for 75% of a student's score. The BSRA, which tests things like colors, shapes and numbers, accounts for 25%.
I think the use of the BSRA leaves the city open for a bit of criticism. While New York has been trying to enroll students in Head Start and other preschool programs, many kids have not attended these programs or high quality daycare programs. As a result, they may be a bit behind on their shapes, letters, numbers and colors, and other such knowledge that depends on information transfer. The OLSAT is a bit closer to a "pure" intelligence test (if such a thing exists). In theory, the material children learn at preschool should be less relevant, though even the idea of sitting still for a test is somewhat of a learned skill. But the 75-25 split does give the city a hedge against the idea that it's basing a child's future on a single test.
Any child who scores at the 95th percentile or above will be guaranteed a spot in a gifted program. Anyone who scores over the 97th percentile will be guaranteed a spot in one of the programs that draws children from across the city. You can read the city's brochure on the new policies here.
I think it's great that the city is taking this issue seriously. As Andrew Jacob, a Department of Education spokesperson, told Time Out New York Kids, "We want to identify more gifted and talented students and to make sure we're meeting their needs." It is infinitely more fair to test everyone than to rely on parents making the call that a child needs intervention.
That said, did I mention that New York is competitive? The Time Out New York Kids article on the gifted program changes cautioned parents to "break out the flash cards." It is too bad that many parents -- rightly, alas -- perceive the gifted programs as islands of excellence in a public school system that, though improving, still has a lot of problems. If you're counting on your child scoring above the 95th percentile so you can avoid paying $26,000 in private school tuition (or moving to the suburbs), you can bet that you will break out the flash cards. I wish that all the schools were excellent, and that the city's gifted programs were simply perceived as educational interventions for children who need them. But this is not the case. In the meantime, at least the new system is relatively fair.