Can an IQ test truly determine a young child’s intellectual potential?
In the winter, Santa Claus may be making his list and checking it twice, but New Orleans parents are busy researching schools and navigating an often-lengthy admissions process in the hopes of sending their children to pre-kindergarten at one of the area’s most exclusive schools.
In the hopes of finding the school that is the right fit for their children, parents must make sure every I is dotted and every T crossed. The schools typically require a formal application, private or group tour, playdate to observe the child, current teacher recommendations and observation at the child’s current school. But the real nail-biter is the intellectual assessment, which is used to determine the child’s readiness for pre-kindergarten and beyond.
All 11 of the ISAS schools – private schools accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest – in the New Orleans area require this testing to be considered for enrollment. But many parents wonder about the reasoning behind testing a child as young as 3 and whether the results can accurately assess his or her potential to learn in the future.
“My understanding, after 14 admissions seasons here in New Orleans, is that it is one more data point on a young child’s developing self,” says Arian Elfant, a clinical psychologist and one of the independent testers of the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, known as the WPPSI, which many ISAS schools require. “Most of the schools are sophisticated enough in their knowledge of the WPPSI to understand that at the young age of 3 and 4, we are not predicting adult intelligence, but we are getting a window into cognitive development right now,” she says.
The test is just one piece of the puzzle
The WPPSI is purely an intellectual test, though Elfant says she places just as much emphasis on the behavioral observations she makes during the assessment, which she adds into the final report. She looks at the child’s overall maturity — if he or she is able to sit still, follow directions and complete a task without becoming easily frustrated. All of this information helps to show whether a child is ready for school and the environments for which they might be best suited.
Lisa Witter is the director of enrollment at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in the Carrollton neighborhood, where the WPPSI is a required part of the admissions process. She believes the test can be a good indicator of a child’s strengths and weaknesses regarding their ability to learn. “Information that a parent gets helps to guide them and helps them to know what to look for in an education for their children,” Witter says. “On the other hand, we know what our school is like, and we know the type of child that succeeds and does well in our environment.”
Vasser Howorth of New Orleans is no stranger to the WPPSI. Her daughter, Ella Brown, now 6, took the test twice – before and during Pre-K. Her son, Jim Brown, 4, is scheduled to take the WPPSI in a few weeks. Howorth says she initially was surprised to hear the WPPSI is an IQ test but soon realized that schools were not necessarily looking only for children who received a high score. Rather, the schools use the test to gauge a child’s strengths and weaknesses to better help him or her in the classroom, she says.
Parents often wonder how they can prepare their children for the WPPSI. School officials say no preparation is necessary except for a good night’s sleep and a filling breakfast that morning. The test is presented in an engaging, game-like format where the first subtests require no verbal communication at all. The testers simply ask the child to recognize a word by pointing to bright pictures on a page. Later portions of the test include block design and object assembly.
Howorth made sure not to give her daughter too much information about the assessment, rather she simply said they were going to visit someone nice who would play some games with her. Ella enjoyed this time so much that she has been preparing her younger brother by telling him how much fun it was, Howorth says.
Chin-Chin Ho, a psychologist who also administers the WPPSI, says it is not fair to a child to rely only on the IQ number given at the end of the analysis. She says she rarely tells parents the score, as she does not want the parents’ expectations of their children to be based on it. “It’s a snapshot of your child’s cognitive development at this time,” Ho says.
Different ways of testing
While more than half of the local independent schools still use the WPPSI, some have decided to take their testing in-house. This is the first year the Academy of the Sacred Heart has not used the assessment. Rather, the Uptown school will do its own screening that administrators believe looks at the whole child, with added language, social and emotional components. “Three- and 4-year-olds hit developmental milestones at different times and in different ways,” says Ashley Zito, director of admission at Sacred Heart. “Therefore, a screening is only one factor that determines school readiness.”
Isidore Newman School also has chosen to do its own developmental screening, which is administered to the child during a visit to the campus. The school’s administrators also believe that this one-on-one time is just as important in getting to know each individual child, says Jennifer Rosen, the Uptown school’s assistant head of school for enrollment management. The tester can see first-hand a child’s approach to task and engagement during the screen, she says.
As for the WPPSI, Elfant has found that the scores don’t have much to do with the child’s potential for achievement in school, which is one less worry for parents. “[It’s] easy to hang your hat on a number,” she says. “But the number does not say a whole lot about success.”
Sarah Herndon is a mother of three and frequent contributor to Nola Family Magazine.