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Early childhood tests and obsessive practices

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I received the results of my 5-year-old son’s Education Records Bureau exam this past week, and the thought crossed my mind: someone out there is thinking to him or herself that my young son’s score means he will never make it to law school.

It was only a brief moment of disquiet. As an educated and analytical thinker, I know that the results of his test are, at best, worthless. However, some parents in New York City may not be as willing to detach from the idea that early childhood tests are accurate. Indeed, many New York parents regard them as a true representation of their child’s cerebral capacity.

The Education Records Bureau exam is a test for private pre-K and kindergarten schools in New York City and other areas across the U.S. Also known as the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of intelligence, it is comprised of several subtests of skills, ranging from vocabulary to hand-eye coordination and numerical reasoning, to the ability to guide a pencil through a maze. The test, admirable in its mission, claims to be testing childhood achievement. But many parents feel as though they’ve been ensnared and oppressed by a group of numbers that can determine which school their child will attend, and thus, even at such a young age, affect their child’s future. But, by seeing the test as merely oppressive, they are missing something much more insidious.

The insidious side of the test is in its ability to deceptively “construct our conceptions of normalcy and deviance,” as Susan Bordo writes about society’s power over the individual in her essay, “Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body” (Bordo, 1993). The test has become not only a malignant imposition by restricting which school we can send our children to, but it has also become integrated into our everyday lives, dictating something as simple as picking out a game or book with our children. It has intertwined itself into all aspects of our children’s lives, from the games they play to the amount of time they spend playing them.

The test will be taken by roughly 40 percent of pre-K and kindergarten-age children this fall in preparation for entry into the highly competitive academic sphere of the city’s private schools. A bad score is regarded as disgraceful by many parents; they see it as a failure of not only their parenting skills, but also of their young children. Aware of the repressive power, families have turned kindergarten — a year that should be spent knee-deep in play dough, play blocks, and muddy puddles — into a year-long cram session of patterns, vocabulary, and arithmetic. Aware of impending failure, parents start to conform; reshaping themselves and, thus their children, into what they believe makes the best kind of child, a 99-percenter.

The 99ers, a reference to children who score in the 99th percentile on achievement tests, are made up of parents and children who forego the creative and imaginative side of childhood for the rigors of severe academic competitiveness. Parents do this willingly, allowing themselves to be shaped by their ideas of what makes a parent or child successful. Parents consent to live-in preparation for the test, despite the fact that it clearly has no place in the home — nor does it need to.

Susan Bordo writes in her essay about a force of regulation and control that is impressive in its ability to shape individuals’ deepest notions of themselves. In these essays, Bordo presents a cultural and theoretical approach to the female body. She addresses the sometimes “obsessive body practices” in our culture and analyzes the effect our culture has on subjects’ notions of themselves. She claims that her intention “is not to portray these obsessions as bizarre or anomalous, but, rather, as the logical manifestation of anxieties and fantasies fostered by our culture” (Bordo, 1993). Bordo’s “obsessive body practices” is analogous to the obsessive competitiveness of New York parents, which transforms children and parents into subjects who promote and comply with the standards of the test, which, like Bordo’s concepts of the female body image, are dictated by cultural standards and norms.

We evaluate milestones throughout childhood as if they are natural points in development, rather than the invented and established medians that they truly are. It is not possible to predict the intellectual aptitude of a child at any age. Children are all different, and with those differences come a variety of abilities, on a variety of levels, in a variety of disciplines. We should not strive to fit our children, like round pegs into square holes, into the mold of the 99ers. Rather, we should encourage intellectual curiosity, which is what truly manifests leaders, creative thinkers, and new progressive ideas — inventive and original, inspired and artistic. In opposition to the regulated standards, we should let our children grow and progress on their own terms, developing their strengths and weaknesses with support and guidance.

Natalie Candela is the mother of a 5-year-old boy living in Manhattan, currently studying at Columbia University to complete her bachelor’s degree in English, and comparative literature and pre-law studies. After graduation she will attend law school to receive her Juris Doctor in International law. An active member of her community, Candela has received awards for her contributions to academic and community life.

Updated 4:46 pm, July 9, 2018
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