If you haven't read New York Magazine's January 31, 2010 article on "The Junior Meritocracy," read it right now. New York has done a stupendous job of summarizing the best research arguing that children's fate should NOT be sealed by a test they take for Kindergarten admission at age four. Simply put, these tests do not provide a good indication of a child's future.
Reading this article, made me think of Ed Zigler, the well-known developmental psychologist from Yale University whom I've heard say again and again that the ethical code of psychologists should be the same code as that of doctors: "first do no harm." And yet, here is an instance where real harm is being done.
Not only are children unfairly being screened in and out of opportunities (the public or private school they attend) that will affect their lives, but increasing numbers of them are being tutored to take these tests. The effects of the kind of tutoring go beyond the impact of the tests--at worst, giving kids dosages of "drill and kill," and "teaching to the test" that are too high.
And yet the horrible irony is that these tests and tutoring are not tapping into the "life skills" that have far more to do with children's future than IQ tests. Jennifer Senior, the author of the New York story concludes her article by talking about Columbia University's Walter Mischel's marshmallow test--the experiment originally conducted in the 1960s where children were given a choice between one marshmallow now or two marshmallows if they could wait for fifteen minutes--because in following up on these children later in life, Mischel found that the children who could wait had higher SAT scores. Senior says:
Maybe our schools ought to be screening children for self-discipline and the ability to tolerate delayed gratification, rather than intelligence and academic achievement. It seems as good a predictor of future success as any.
Using the Marshmallow Test as a screening test (no matter how humorous the image) is obviously NOT the answer. I agree with Sam Meisels of the Erikson Institute who advocates in this article and elsewhere that schools need to get a more comprehensive view of young children over time in their classrooms.
I do think that part of the answer is for families and teachers to promote this and other life skills (such as making connections and helping children learn to take on challenges) in fun and playful ways--that is the conclusion I have drawn from eight years of interviewing more than 75 leading researchers on children's learning and development for my forthcoming book, Mind in the Making. When we interviewed Walter Mischel, he said:
"The advantage for the young child who knows how to delay gratification is that they're likely [to] be able to pursue academic and personal goals with less frustration, with less distraction."
So what's a parent to do? Right now, parents are caught in a catch 22. If they don't get their children ready for the test, others will and their child may be a disadvantage.
Yes, we can and should promote life skills that matter, but we also have to deal with these tests. If there ever were a time for a parents' movement, it is now. And if there ever were a just cause, this is among the best!