Parents Spend Thousands on Test-Prep to Get Kids into 'Gifted' Kindergartens

PHOTO: Sasha Barnett, left, tutors Elaina Berman for the exam that determines eligibility for New York Citys Gifted & Talented kindergarten program.
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Stressed parents, squirming kids, expensive prepping for standardized tests -- welcome to the world of applying to kindergarten.

Yes, kindergarten. Thousands of 4-year-olds across the country spend an hour every Saturday or Sunday, sometimes both, with a tutor who helps them with analogies, comprehension and pattern-recognition.

Watch "Nightline" anchor Cynthia McFadden's full report on "Nightline" tonight at 11: 35 p.m. ET

Their goal -- their parents' goal -- is a school like NEST+m on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. Neither a posh private school nor a charter school, NEST+m is a public school for the "gifted and talented." It goes from kindergarten through high school and currently boasts a 100 percent graduation rate. If you get in for kindergarten, you're in for the rest of the way through high school.

At an age when many children are not reading at all, NEST+m kindergarteners have math in the morning, science before lunch, then mandatory Mandarin Chinese in the afternoon.

In New York City, a single hour-long test, the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT), determines entrance to Gifted and Talented (G&T) programs at kindergarten.

"For those of us who can't afford private school, we have no choice," Lee Berman, a parent who prepped his young daughter Elaina Berman for the OLSAT, told "Nightline" anchor Cynthia McFadden.

He added, "how well they do on this will determine how they do for the rest of their educational career into middle school and then high school and beyond."

Last year, more than 12,000 children took the test in New York City alone. Approximately 4,000 scored at least in the 90th percentile, and 1,000 scored in the 99th. That vastly exceeds the number of total spots; at NEST+m there were 106 seats. In New York City, every year there are fewer than 300 spots in the system's most elite Gifted and Talented schools. So all the kids who score in the 99th percentile are put into a lottery for these precious few spots.

Thirty-seven states have a mandate to have gifted programs in their public schools. New York City has, by far, the biggest program. Yet testing for giftedness is always a thorny issue.

In his widely acclaimed book "Nurture Shock," author Po Bronson argues that tests for giftedness and talent at age four are not accurate predictors of future academic success. In 73 percent of cases, he says, the prediction didn't hold: kids who aced the test at four were not scoring at the same advanced levels in high school, while other kids were.

New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott disagrees and says he is confident the tests work.

"We've done a lot of research and analysis to make sure both that the test is at a certain level of rigor" and that "the tests are not biased," he said.

He added that the majority of students at NEST+m stay and do well in the G&T program.

"I would never qualify for [NEST+m]," Walcott admitted. "Plain and simple. Just put that on the public record: I would never qualify. And probably even now as the Chancellor I wouldn't qualify for this school."

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