This article ran in the July 8-15, 2013 issue of New York.
Long before summer’s first heat wave, temperatures were running hot among the parents of New York’s 4-year-olds. A series of gaffes by the test-publishing company Pearson undermined the credibility of the city’s gifted-and-talented testing program and forced families to hang fire over their kindergartners’ academic fate. Then, just as that problem seemed close to resolution, an NYU mathematics professor named Alexey Kuptsov, along with three other parents, sued the Department of Education, claiming the admissions process was flawed, causing more delays and rousing the ire of New York parenting blogs.
Like any system that creates an elite benefit and doles it out to a lucky few, New York’s G&T program has long been a lightning rod for anxiety and resentment. Alongside some 70,000 places in standard-track general-education kindergarten classrooms, the DOE offers about 2,700 seats in G&T programs, which originated to serve the small percentage of kids so brilliant that they’re at a disadvantage in a normal classroom. Within each school district, certain schools maintain gifted classrooms open to the children living there. In addition, a handful of elite public schools are open to top-scoring students from anywhere in the city. To qualify for either type, kids take an aptitude test and receive a raw score and a percentile ranking. A child must rank in the 90th percentile or above to be eligible for a district program, 97th or above for citywide.
At first glance, the system looks highly selective, but the numbers are misleading. A child who’s ranked in the 99th percentile hasn’t outperformed 99 percent of actual fellow test takers but a mathematically generated hypothetical national population. Twenty percent are in the “97th percentile”; 40 percent are in the “90th.”
What was conceived of as a special curriculum for the truly exceptional has come to be seen by many (including me, the father of a 4-year-old) as more about providing a shot at a high-quality alternative to the often unimpressive general-education schools that kids are otherwise assigned to by default. “Gifted education is the Chihuahua pulling the semi trailer out of a ditch,” says Elissa Brown, a professor of education at Hunter College.
At least it’s something. For most of us in the city’s successful-but-not-affluent middle class, New York has become a real-life reality show in which every year more of our cohort gets voted off the island. Along with a rent-stabilized apartment, a good public school is one of the handholds that lets us hang on for a little bit longer. I personally inherited my three-bedroom on the Upper West Side from a friend whose son missed qualifying for G&T by one point; rather than settle for gen-ed at his grade-C local school, he pulled up stakes for Wilton.
There’s a constituency, then, for keeping G&T entry criteria broad, even if doing so defeats one of the main benefits of gifted education—to create an environment for kids where everyone is as brilliant as they are. This drawback is baked into district G&T programs, which are numerous enough that hyperselectivity is never really the point. The citywide programs, on the other hand, offer just 304 kindergarten spots. But even there, so many kids qualify—this year, 2,827 incoming kindergartners met citywide placement criteria—that the seats are distributed by lottery.
The DOE tried to return G&T to its roots last fall, announcing that it would scrap the lottery and award seats based on merit, selecting kids by raw-score rank from the top down. It also declared that students would be given a new combination of tests that would presumably be less susceptible to test-prep gaming, which many believe has become endemic.
But parental pressure forced the DOE to reinstate the lottery system, and then in April, after the new test results came back, it turned out that the test’s publisher, Pearson, had miscalculated thousands of kids’ results. The DOE said that G&T placement letters would be delayed until after the results were corrected. Then while examining its own data, Pearson discovered another batch of errors. More delay.
As a matter of politics, the DOE could raise kids’ scores to fix an error, but not lower them. So the number qualifying for G&T ballooned, rising to 40 percent from last year’s 35 percent. This was great for kids whose scores went up, but for kids who truly were exceptional, the change only watered down their already slim chances of getting into a program. Kuptsov’s daughter, for instance, got a perfect score; if the DOE had granted seats based on pure performance, she could have chosen any program she wanted. As it was, her odds of getting into a citywide program were about one in twelve.
And so, Kuptsov filed for an injunction to prevent the DOE from sending out placement letters until it could review its procedure. That’s when the shitstorm erupted on parenting blogs. Not only did Kuptsov’s lawsuit leave prospective public-school parents on tenterhooks about their children’s future, the city’s entire kindergarten classroom-allocation system was put on hold, public and private alike, because it shut down the usual summerlong game of musical chairs that is unofficially dubbed “attrition rounds,” in which parents who get their kids into a gifted program pull them out of private schools or gen-ed programs somewhere else, opening up spots for kids who will in turn open up seats elsewhere, and so on. This domino effect can run well past the start of the school year even in the best of times. “All these problems are prolonging the agony,” says educational consultant Robin Aronow.
“People were saying terrible things about me,” says Kuptsov, fresh from the experience of becoming, for a few weeks in late May and early June, the most hated New Yorker on Urbanbaby.com. Sample comments: “The guy is deranged”; “Really embarrassing himself”; and “What a self-serving A-hole.” Kuptsov didn’t back down. “In mathematics, it’s either right or it’s wrong,” he says. “You have to do what’s right.”
Finally, on June 7, Manhattan Supreme Court justice Alice Schlesinger heard the case. “Let’s not get caught up in numbers,” the DOE’s lawyer pleaded, claiming that the test scores are not accurate enough to rank one child over another. The judge agreed. “Frankly, I think all children are gifted,” she said. On June 14, the placement e-mails went out. Kuptsov’s daughter did not get a seat at any G&T program. (Neither, for the record, did my son.)
Parents who received placement offers had until the end of June to respond, after which the DOE will see what seats remain and then send out another round of placement letters, most likely in August. How the allotments will play out after that, nobody knows, but many parents will likely find their anxiety smoldering on through October.
For his part, Kuptsov says he and his family plan to sit tight in Manhattan Beach. He’s considering putting his daughter in a private school. Meanwhile, he’s pressing on with his lawsuit, which an appeals court is expected to hear in September at the earliest. “The placement has happened, so it’s not going to affect my kid,” he says. “But there’s a value in finding the truth.” He’s not too worried about the public scorn either. “You don’t want to be politically correct,” argues Kuptsov. “You want to provide the service to the kids who need it.”