Bilingual Kids See Gifted Scores Drop After Test Changes, Parents Say

By Amy Zimmer on April 14, 2014 6:51am 

 Tim Wang's 4-year-old son, who lives in Flushing, scored a 97 on this year's gifted and talented exam.
Tim Wang's 4-year-old son, who lives in Flushing, scored a 97 on this year's gifted and talented exam.
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Tim Wang

QUEENS — Tim Wang wishes he'd spent more time speaking English to his son at home.

Wang's 4-year-old recently scored in the 97th percentile on the city's gifted and talented exam — a very high score, but likely not high enough to earn him a spot in the city's most elite G&T programs, like the Upper West Side’s Anderson School and the Lower East Side’s NEST+m.

Wang's son, who learned English as his first language, but now primarily speaks Mandarin at home, did better on the nonverbal section of the exam, which asks kids to identify patterns and shapes and draw logical conclusions, than he did on the verbal section, in which an adult reads a question out loud to a child once and then asks for an answer.

That wouldn't have mattered as much last year, when the nonverbal section held more weight in determining a child's overall score — but this year the Department of Education changed the scoring to give the two sections equal weight.

Scores fell sharply across the city, and test prep experts and families said children who speak more than one language had a tougher time achieving top scores this year.

“I was very proud of my son, especially what he did in the verbal,” said Wang, a 41-year-old software engineer who moved from Taiwan to Flushing in 2000. 

But if Wang had known about the grading changes, he said, “I may [have] spent a little bit more time to read English stories for my son.”

The score drop in immigrant communities was most apparent in three school districts in Queens — a borough where nearly half of residents are foreign-born, according to city data — where scores of children trying to test into kindergarten G&T programs plummeted more than anywhere else in the city.

District 30, which encompasses Astoria, Long Island City, Jackson Heights and Woodside, saw the number of top scorers drop by 58 percent compared to last year. In District 25 — Wang’s district — which includes Flushing, the number of top scorers dropped by 54 percent.

And District 26, which covers Bayside, Fresh Meadows and Jamaica Estates, saw the number of top scorers fall by 52 percent. Because of the district’s strong schools, many immigrant families from South Korea, China, India and Japan have moved to the area, according to Insideschools.

The drops are even more striking considering that hundreds more children across the city took the G&T qualifying test this year compared to last year, records show.

Deb Alexander, who sits on District 30’s Community Education Council and is a parent of a G&T student, said families in her neighborhood complained the new test is “disadvantageous” to English learners.

“Our district has an incredibly high number of homes where English is not the first language,” she said. "The child may be a native English speaker, but it’s what they’re used to listening to.”

The DOE declined to comment on the impact of the testing changes this year on kids who speak English as a second language. A spokesman released a statement saying, "The tweak in the weights was designed to improve the psychometric balance across the two tests based on the data from the previous year, when the DOE first introduced this particular test combination."

The Department of Education does provide translators for English language learners on the verbal and nonverbal portions of the test in Arabic, Bengali, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Urdu.

But many families said the quality of translation services varies. In addition, they say, the verbal part of the G&T exam wasn’t designed for non-English-speaking children — leaving nuances to get lost even with a translator, said Michael McCurdy, co-founder of test preparation website Testing Mom.

“For example, even in the Department of Education gifted and talented handbook they have questions that use traditional American boy names and foods that are American, like pizza,” McCurdy said. “If a child is growing up in a household that only speaks Mandarin, for example, and has never eaten or seen pizza, they would be at a disadvantage.”

Bige Doruk, founder of test prep company Bright Kids NYC, analyzed data from her students' scores after the changed G&T test this year. Though the scores were still high overall, she said, “Our ELL [English language learner] kids definitely scored much lower this year.”

Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center education professor David Bloomfield said the results highlight the “mutability” of test scores.

“You switch to this 50/50 arrangement [equally weighting the verbal and nonverbal sections], and you change who’s considered gifted or not,” he said. “It just seems to me one more example of how the almost arbitrary changing of metrics creates huge differences in the lives of children.”

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