To test into some of Chicago's top schools, incoming kindergarteners must be able to do more than just count to 10 or rattle off the alphabet.
They could be asked to identify trapezoids, figure out how many cookies they'd have if Mom put two more on their plate, demonstrate advanced literacy skills, and, for gifted programs, be able to infer relationships, recognize patterns and predict what comes next.
You can probably predict what comes next yourself: With 3,337 applications filed for about 500 seats in Chicago Public Schools' classical and gifted elementary schools' kindergarten programs this fall, parents are helping their preschoolers cram for the tests.
"It's just yet another example that the country has gone test crazy," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a national non-profit that advocates for other methods of assessing young children. "This sort of insanity testing produces test coaching for little kids and gaming of the system by parents and others to figure out what's on the test and get their kid a leg up. We're not letting kids be kids, and we're making them into little Einsteins."
But with low-performing neighborhood schools an unattractive option and the cost of some private schools out of reach, many parents see the public schools' selective enrollment programs as the best public education option in the city. And with kindergarten being an entry year for most of those programs, many parents are hiring private tutors, researching tests used in other large urban school systems, finding age-appropriate questions online, and doing whatever else it takes to get their kids on the right track early.
"I was blissfully naive about how this all worked when my older daughter tested for first grade," said Shannan Bunting. Even though with no special preparation her daughter made it into Decatur Classical Elementary, a top-scoring school, "we realized we couldn't do that for our second child and just hope to be lucky," she said.
This year she hired a former Montessori teacher to tutor her preschooler on everything from learning continents to sounding out words.
Such a move would not be unusual in New York, where parents have for years hired tutors and paid upward of $1,000 for "kindercramming" bootcamps for 3- and 4-year-olds, but in Chicago it's a new phenomenon.
Although a test prep company called SelectivePrep offers courses for 6th graders and up for admissions to top-scoring middle and high school programs, nothing similar exists for kindergarten.
And getting a child in a school for that first year can guarantee a spot in subsequent years, which is increasingly difficult to secure. This year, Chicago has 13,058 applications on file for approximately 1,150 seats in classical and gifted elementary schools. Some of the best schools have found themselves rejecting students who score as high as the 98th percentile on entrance exams.
Chicago schools officials don't encourage prepping children for the tests because it skews the results, says Abigayil Joseph, head of the city's Office of Academic Enhancement.
"We want children to come to the table with their natural ability without having been prepared," she said. "That's how we find the best match. We don't want them to come in and do well because they've been prepped but then be in an environment that's two grades above their level."
But that doesn't stop parents from trying to do what they consider best for their kids. Some even wonder why Chicago doesn't follow New York's example and tell parents which test they use.
"Why is it that there's so much secrecy about it?" asked Gail Wilson, who hired a tutor to work with her two daughters to prepare for gifted testing. "They tell you (that) you can't prepare, but you can."
Author Karen Quinn, who parlayed her extensive research and her person experience into a popular book, "Testing for Kindergarten," agrees with those parents.
"So much of it is exposure to concepts," said Quinn, who sells a $300 Candyland-themed test-prep game she developed. "If they're practicing the kinds of questions that are on these kinds of tests, they will be more prepped than a child that goes in cold."
Quinn said her game can help spark the critical thinking parts of the brain and gets children familiar with answering test questions like those used for gifted programs. She also offers daily questions and tips to people who pay $5 a month to access her website, www.testingmom.com.
More than 1,000 Chicago-area parents have joined.
Tutor Lemi Erinkitola started a tutoring company for kids as young as 3, preparing children, mostly on the South Side, for CPS' admissions tests. She said when she went through the process with her own three children, she found few resources.
"I'm just one mother who wanted to do something because there was nothing out there," Erinkitola said. "I looked outside of Illinois and looked at other gifted programs. They were more transparent in terms of what they wanted kids to be prepared for, and I deduced that Illinois can't be that different."
On a recent Saturday, Erinkitola played with 3-year-old Jordin Offei, building a small tower with blue, white and red blocks and then asking the toddler to make exactly the same pattern with another set of blocks. She was teaching visual sequencing, the ability to reason and solve problems, using pictures, diagrams and geometric shapes.
She then asked the toddler to pick out whether a peach or a green pepper would fit into a group of plastic fruits. She was teaching the child how to classify objects or determine the relationship between things.
Offei, who has not started preschool, still has two years before she takes the admissions test, but already her mother has noticed growth.
"She can spell both her first name and last name, she can tell the difference between different shapes," said Jennifer Wright, 27, of Auburn, Ill. "She can pick up a book and she'll tell you what's happening on the page, sometimes she can even recognize the word."
As for Bunting, her preschooler took the test in November, rather than wait closer to the end of the testing period, on Feb. 27. CPS officials had said it didn't matter whether 4-year-olds tested in the fall or now because their ages on test day are taken into consideration.
But Bunting's younger daughter came out of the testing room just after 10 minutes and declared, "So, I don't think I got any of those right."
"I'm worried," said Bunting. "(CPS officials) had said there was no advantage to waiting, but she might have had a slightly more serious approach to the test. But there's nothing I can do about it now. The ship has sailed."
TESTING YOUNG KIDS: HOW THE TESTS WORK
For preschoolers, the gifted and selective enrollment testing process begins as soon as they say goodbye to their parents and walk off with a stranger.
"The test stipulates the child has to separate from parents," said Joyce Hopkins, a clinical psychologist who helps administer tests for elementary and middle school kids.
Testing is conducted by doctoral students in Illinois Institute of Technology's clinical psychology program, who are overseen by professors. Older kids are tested in small groups, but prospective kindergartners are tested one-on-one, with the kids answering oral questions or perhaps pointing to a picture than answers the question.
For classical programs like Decatur and Skinner West, the admissions test measures a child's knowledge in reading and mathematics - a straightforward achievement test like the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. While CPS says the cutoff score is the 80th percentile, most parents find their kids need to score in the high 90s to have a shot.
Experienced parents advise helping prepare for those tests using a 1st or 2nd grade workbook in reading or math, or practicing phonetics and simple math problems with the children.
For regional gifted centers like Edison and Coonley, CPS says scores of 115 are the cutoff, but savvy parents advise that a strong score like 130 is higher than the 95th percentile and more likely to lead to an acceptance letter.
The gifted program test does not necessarily test for a child's IQ, but it does measure problem solving skills, mental control and logical thinking.
"It's not a process that tests for giftedness per se," Hopkins said. "It tests for kids who have academic potential. The best predictor of future behavior is the child's behavior now."
Parents often find it more difficult understanding the abstract concept of critical thinking and how to prepare their kids.
"When children combine cognitive skills to evaluate what they see, hear, and read, and then make decisions, reach conclusions, or solve problems based on analysis of information, they are using critical thinking skills," explained Karen Quinn, author of "Testing for Kindergarten."
Quinn, who has created a website where parents pay to receive sample practice questions that help toddlers to third graders think critically, said drawing analogies and reasoning are important components to critical thinking.
To prepare for gifted tests, she adds that children need to be able to:
- Compile information through observations (watching, listening, reading).
- Sort, classify, and compare once information has been gathered - put things in groups, notice similarities and differences
- Reason - Look at different sides of an issue, reach conclusions and form opinions.
- Use short-term memory - CPS describes it as having mental control, or the ability to retrieve information given within the last few seconds, hold it and then complete a task with that information.
- Hypothesize - Children should be able to hypothesize or predict what is likely to happen next.
- Problem Solve - Generate ideas and look for alternatives to solve problems.
"If you go to a grocery store, you can ask your child, 'A fruit is to a grocery store what a hammer is to a....hardware store,'" Quinn says. "It's making those types of connections."
Hopkins said the best way to help your son or daughter avoid test anxiety is to calm down yourself.
"The most important message for parents is to relax," Hopkins said. "Younger kids can pick up on parents' anxiety . . . it can get in the way of them doing well on the test."