LOWER MANHATTAN — Four-year-old Annabelle Lynch doesn't know it, but for the past three months, her parents have been aggressively preparing her for a single, hour-long test that will determine her educational future.
The preschooler's parents have poured dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars into private tutoring and practice tests — all in the hope that the Annabelle will win a coveted spot in one of the city's exclusive gifted and talented public elementary schools. And they've had to keep it all secret from her to avoid putting undue stress and pressure on her, as experts recommend.
"It's overwhelming and stressful," said Mark Lynch, Annabelle's father, a Lower East Side real estate broker.
"I'm thinking, 'What if she has a bad day?' You've done all this work, but there's no guarantee. You have to keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best."
Every winter, thousands of children vie for the city's scarce gifted and talented seats, hoping to win a spot in one of the handful of free public schools whose prestige rivals that of private schools.
Last year, 14,088 4-year-olds took the gifted and talented entrance test. Under the city's rules, all those who scored above the 90th percentile were eligible for seats in their district's gifted and talented programs. But, in reality, most had to score significantly higher to get a position, especially in the most competitive districts such as Districts 2 and 3 which encompass the Upper East and Upper West sides.
Only 970 of the 14088 got the top score necessary for a kindergarten seat in the coveted citywide gifted programs, which allow students to move out of their district for school, according to Department of Education figures. Those schools officially require a 97 percentile score or higher to enroll, but in practice, the score is often much higher, as much as 99 percent, experts say.
Even children who ace the test may not get a spot in their family's first-choice school, because siblings of current students often scoop up the seats. Some gifted schools, such as the Lower East Side's New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math, which is Lynch's first choice for Annabelle, may fill their entire kindergarten class just with children who score in the 99th percentile on the test.
To beat these odds, parents go to extreme lengths to prepare preschool children to take the first standardized test of their lives.
Lynch signed Annabelle up for weekly private tutoring sessions at Bright Kids NYC, a Lower Manhattan company that charges $1,080 for a basic package of eight sessions, books and materials.
Bige Doruk, a Financial District mother who started Bright Kids NYC in 2009, sees the classes as an essential preparation for parents who want to increase the chances of their child getting a gifted and talented seat.
"It's no different from studying for the SAT," Doruk said. "In order for children to do well, they have to be taught the underlying skills."
Bright Kids NYC's tutors use games and practice tests to prepare children for the gifted and talented exam, which is actually made up of two tests: the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT), which is worth 75 percent ands covers logic and reasoning skills, and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment, which is worth 25 percent and covers colors, shapes and numbers.
Even before teaching children the concepts they will need to know on the test, Bright Kids NYC starts by teaching them about the idea of a test itself, which is something young children have never seen before.
"Sometimes [on multiple-choice questions] children start pointing to things they like," Doruk said. "They don't understand that this is a test and there's only one right answer."
Children also have to learn to sit still and focus for the 45 minutes to an hour that the test will take. The tester will ask each question only once, so if a child's attention wanders for even a moment, that could mean the difference between a perfect score and one that might not qualify them for a seat in the gifted program.
One way to improve children's stamina is to get them comfortable doing activities that require extended concentration, like puzzles or memory games, experts said.
Another challenge for children is if they are shy and might be hesitant to answer a stranger's questions, said Michael McCurdy, co-founder of TestingMom.com, a test preparation website that offers parents thousands of downloadable practice questions for $14.99 a month.
McCurdy suggests that parents weave the test concepts into the family's everyday life, so the ideas and words on the test become familiar to the child.
"At the grocery store, have the child go get two apples and two oranges and ask, 'How many do you have all together?'" McCurdy said.
"As you go down the street, point out colors and numbers. Use words like either, or, neither, nor, deep and shallow."
This year, children will take the gifted and talented tests between Jan. 3 and Feb. 10, and the city will send out the results in mid-April.
Families will then rank their choices for gifted and talented seats and will find out by late May whether they have won a spot in any of the schools they chose.
Throughout this long and often stressful process, parents should not tell their children that they are taking a high-stakes test that will determine where they go to school — in fact, they shouldn't even use the word "test," said Kim Har, director of childhood education at Aristotle Circle, a test preparation and admissions counseling company.
"There's no need to alarm [children], especially if they're inclined to be anxious [about] performance or being perfect," Har said. "You really don't want to stress them out."
Har recalled one young boy whose parents told him that he was taking an exam that would decide whether he would get into a few particularly competitive schools. Although the boy did well on the test, he didn't get into any of the schools his parents hoped he would attend.
"He was devastated," Har said. "He kept asking his parents, 'Why didn't anyone want me?' It's really unnecessary. It's better to couch it in games, having fun. They really don't need [to know] what the implications are."
While tutoring and practice tests may improve a child's score, some experts object to the idea of coaching kids to outsmart a test that is meant to measure their intelligence.
"It's really perverse to do that to a kid, to train them to out-test their ability," said Dr. Alicia Salzer, a psychiatrist and co-founder of Medhattan Immediate Medical Care in the Financial District.
Children who have to spend months studying just to get into a gifted and talented program may be unable to keep up with the accelerated coursework once they start school, Salzer said.
She worries that those children will get discouraged by the fast pace and pressure to succeed and could wind up disliking school.
When her own daughter, who is now in first grade at P.S. 3, did not get a top score on her gifted and talented test two years ago, Salzer was disappointed but realized it might have been for the best.
"If my daughter doesn't belong in these programs, I don't want to do that to her," Salzer said. "We're all anxious here in New York — everyone is such an over-achiever, and the system makes parents scramble."
A Battery Park City mother whose 4-year-old daughter is taking the gifted and talented test this year said she is overwhelmed by the pressure to give her daughter every possible advantage.
"I always feel like I'm behind," said the 32-year-old mother, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared jeopardizing her daughter's chances.
"The whole process and trying to keep up with other parents — I feel like it doesn't matter how much I do, there will always be a parent who does more."
The mother decided to apply for a gifted and talented seat for her daughter because she is concerned that her local school, P.S. 89, will be overcrowded. The young girl already takes ballet, soccer and swimming lessons, and her mother said she did not want to add private tutoring sessions, which are expensive and could overwhelm the already busy child.
The mother added that she finds the entire testing and school selection process "extremely stressful" and hopes the anxiety doesn't trickle down to her daughter.
"I'm trying to protect her as much as we can," the mother said. "She's just 4 years old."