Nearly 5,000 children qualified for gifted and talented kindergarten seats in New York City public schools in the fall, 22 percent more than last year and more than double the number four years ago, setting off a fierce competition for the most sought-after programs in the system.

On their face, the results, released on Friday by the Education Department, paint a portrait of a city in which some neighborhoods appear to be entirely above average. In Districts 2 and 3, which encompass most of Manhattan below 110th Street, more students scored at or above the 90th percentile on the entrance exam, the cutoff point, than scored below it.

But experts pointed to several possible reasons for the large increase. For one, more middle-class and wealthy parents are staying in the city and choosing to send their children to public schools, rather than moving to the suburbs or pursuing increasingly expensive private schools. And the switch to a test-based admissions system four years ago has given rise to test-preparation services, from booklets costing a few dollars to courses costing hundreds or more, raising concerns that the test’s results were being skewed.

Robin Aronow, an admissions consultant in Manhattan, said she could not attribute all of the increase to test preparation, “but it certainly seems to be having an influence.”

“There are more and more people who are putting their kids through some sort of test preparation, whether it’s buying the materials or using the test-prep companies,” she said. “I think the nursery schools have begun to integrate some of the materials into their classes as well.”

She added, “I also know people who have paid for test prep, and some of their kids did wonderfully and some did poorly.”

In 2010, Education Department officials acknowledged that the practice might be influencing the results and ordered a new form of testing, to take effect next year. In a statement on Friday, a department spokesman, Frank Thomas, did not address test preparation but attributed the rise in high scorers to the increased popularity of public schooling.

“We are pleased to see more New York City children qualifying for gifted and talented programs than ever before, a sign that more and more families are interested in sending their children to public schools,” Mr. Thomas said. “We are always strengthening our tests to make sure they continue to provide an accurate reflection of the work our students are doing.”

Of the children who scored high enough on the entrance exam to be eligible for a gifted program, more than half — 2,656 — qualified for the five most selective schools by scoring at or above the 97th percentile. But those schools — three in Manhattan and one each in Brooklyn and Queens — have only about 400 kindergarten seats. The rest of the 4,912 children qualified for one of the dozens of gifted programs spread throughout the five boroughs. The department said it would not know for several weeks how many seats would be available for those students, and some parents ultimately elect to send their children to regular classes in their neighborhood schools, but in years past many who have sought gifted placement have been shut out.

Gifted programs generally offer an accelerated curriculum, as well as the opportunity to be around other high-performing children. The city did not provide a racial breakdown of students who qualified, but as in years past, the more affluent districts — 2 and 3 in Manhattan, in neighborhoods west and south of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and in northeastern Queens — had the most students qualify. In District 2, 949 children qualified for a gifted program, far more than in any other district. In District 3, 505 children qualified. By contrast, in District 7, in the South Bronx, only six children qualified for gifted placements and none for the five most exclusive schools.

At one of those schools, the Anderson School on the Upper West Side, only parents whose children scored in the 99th percentile are invited to open houses. One parent, Kevin Wardally, has his sights set on Anderson for his son, Emerson, who scored in the 99th percentile, but with so many high scorers this year, Mr. Wardally is not sure Emerson will get in. Schools with more qualifying applicants than seats generally choose students by lottery.

“We definitely paid a lot of money to send him to a very good Catholic pre-K that has a very good reputation for helping get kids into excellent schools,” said Mr. Wardally, who lives in Harlem. “They never make you a guarantee, but I have to be honest, we made a little bit of an assumption that scoring as highly as he did, that we might have a pretty good shot. Well, we’re praying on it, because these are the kinds of choices that make a difference in young kids’ lives.”

Every year since 2008, when the city put the current testing program into effect and 2,230 students qualified for seats in gifted and talented kindergarten classes, the number of children scoring at or above the 90th percentile has steadily grown. The chancellor in 2008, Joel I. Klein, made the change to standardize the admissions process, replacing a system in which each district set its own standards for entry, a process that drew criticism from parents who said favoritism sometimes played a role.

But the new process has come under scrutiny for its complete reliance on the test — actually two exams, the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, or Olsat, a reasoning exam, and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment, a knowledge test.

In January, the city awarded Pearson a three-year contract for roughly $5.5 million to replace the Bracken exam with the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, which city education officials contend will better measure ability. The contract places restrictions on Pearson’s ability to sell its test materials to anyone outside the Education Department, to make it harder for test-preparation companies to get their hands on them.

The city will continue to administer the Olsat, which tests verbal and pictorial-reasoning abilities. A couple of years ago, the city, seeking to even the playing field a bit, began distributing a small list of sample Olsat questions free (one reasoning question uses pictures and the example of a road and a car to ask what goes with railroad tracks).

Always on the alert for changes to admissions policies, some tutoring companies, true to the nature of their profession, are prepared for it.

One of the companies, Aristotle Circle, already offers a $300 “test preparation and enrichment kit” designed for the Naglieri and similar exams.

“You can build a better mousetrap, it doesn’t matter,” said Suzanne Rheault, one of Aristotle’s founders. “There’s no way you can stop it because now the idea of preparing for the kindergarten test is totally the norm. The stakes are so high.”

By Anna M. Phillips

Source: New York Times –