06/11/2009 03:54 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Early Childhood Admissions Assessment

When my daughter, Marin, was just 36 hours old, I sat in the lobby of the hospital waiting for my husband to pull the car around, so we could take her home for the first time. An older man turned to us and started chatting about my adorable 6-pound bundle. "Are you planning on raising her in the city?" he asked. I nodded. He laughed and said, "Then I guess you better start looking at kindergarten!"

Four years later, our daughter is looking at kindergarten for fall 2010, and the floodgates of private school admissions competition are just beginning to open.

A key piece of that admissions process is "the ERB test," or ECAA -- Early Childhood Admissions Assessment. You see, in an effort to make the application process less grueling for the children, the schools accept one centrally administered standardized test as part of their evaluation. Of course, this makes the process more grueling for the parents. There are no re-dos. Your child gets to take the test once and only once a year, and that score, that one score, is passed around to all the schools you apply to. No pressure, right?

"We" took the ERBs this morning. We didn't hire a tutor or do any kind of prep work, as some parents suggested. My daughter loves school and is interested in her work, so I figured that as long as we didn't make it a big deal, she would sail right through. Besides, it occurred to me, what does a 4-year old know about tests? She doesn't know about passing or failing. She doesn't know about being evaluated. What does she have to be nervous about? Right? I promised myself I would curb my own anxiety.

I did everything right getting ready. She got a good night's sleep. I didn't fight her getting dressed. We went to the coffee shop for a special breakfast. I left ample time for subway delays. I made sure she used the bathroom on the way in. So why was I getting so nervous?

As if she could sense this, the barrage of questions began. "Will the teacher be a boy or a girl?" "What's his or her name?" "Will you come in and do work with me?" "Why do they want you to wait in the waiting room?" "Will there be other kids with me?" "Why won't there be other kids?" "How long will I be in there for?"

We entered the test center, and I was completely surprised by the reception area. Somehow I was picturing a sparse, modern space filled with educational toys. But it was more like the reception area for a law firm, with oriental rugs and leather wingback chairs. There were financial periodicals and news magazines on the coffee table, and only two small chairs and a little shelf of kids books to suggest that the children even belonged. There was another father and son waiting to be tested as well. Our kids eyed each other shyly. The father and I avoided eye contact all together. (Out of nerves? Competition?)

We checked in, and the agonizing began, though I tried to remain outwardly calm as I surveyed our surroundings and chatted with my daughter. A tester came out and introduced herself to the boy. "See, the teacher's a girl," Marin said.

"Well that's his teacher -- yours will be different, remember?" I pointed out.

The boy went in very reluctantly. This had been one of the things I was nervous about. If Marin sensed anxiety from the other kids, would that rub off on her? Fortunately, her tester came out shortly after. (Sigh of relief when I saw it was a woman.) She left me willingly, and I heard them chatting as they went down the hall.

I opened the book that I brought, but each minute that followed was excruciating. I texted my husband updates. It was cold in there. Shoot. Her sweater was next to me on the chair. What if she got cold in the room? Would they come out and get it? Should I let the receptionist know and see if she would take it to her? The boy in the other room started excitedly shouting his answers. I tried to eavesdrop to figure out if they were things Marin would know. Then the shouting started to get annoying. Could she hear it in her room? Would it be a distraction?

After 32 minutes, she had to come out for a potty break. (Doh!) Do they take points off for this? Alone with her in the bathroom, I asked how it was going. "Good. Fun," she said. Then, cryptically, "I only have three left." I was dying to grill her, but then I began to worry that the bathroom was bugged to prevent cheating. I stayed quiet and hurried her back to the room.

14 minutes later, the boy came out. The father immediately looked at his son and said, "Did you build a good rapport??" (Is this seriously something you ask a kid?!) He looked up at the tester. She smiled and said, "We worked very well together."

Another 7 minutes and Marin appeared once again. It took her a long time to pick which sticker she wanted on her way out. (More points off?) I looked at the tester, hoping for some wink or nod that said, "your daughter is the smartest kid who's ever been through these doors." But she smiled and said, "we worked very well together." Hmph.

With 3-4 weeks to wait for results, I started to realize that, as parents, we all want the world to see our children as the wonderful, adorable and smart little humans that we see, and having some kind of data point out there that might suggest otherwise is unnerving. What if she's not as smart as I think she is? What if she is, but because some kid was shouting answers in the room next door, she didn't show it? I know all the controversy about standardized tests regarding their bias and rigidity, but to me the experience was almost too variable.

On the way back to the subway, I watched my daughter walking along, swinging her arms and working on her whistling. All of a sudden I felt glad that, at least four years into the game, she is completely unscathed by my parental angst. Ask me again when she's 16.