New York’s 4-Year-Olds Are Mastering Zoom to Get Into Elite Kindergartens

Sending a 4-year-old to “interview” at a New York City private school is difficult at any time. But these days admission to some of the city’s most competitive kindergartens could be influenced by the outcome of a single Zoom call.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced admissions officers at the institutions, which can cost more than $55,000 a year, to think about new ways of evaluating preschoolers. The deadlines for applying for some schools’ fall 2021 kindergarten classes are as early as this week, with decisions generally sent to parents in February.

With in-person interviews and playdates largely out the window, more than two dozen of the city’s elite schools — led by representatives from Brearley and Dalton in Manhattan — formed an alliance to use a new evaluation over Zoom. The outcome of the video interview — which is supposed to take up to 45 minutes — is then shared among the schools.

“There’s a one-time shot for those schools,” said Robin Aronow, founder of school admissions consulting firm School Search NYC. “If your kid is having a wonderful day, then they benefit from the report being sent to multiple schools.”

But imagine, instead, if your child refuses to come out from under the table that day. “It’s a discouraging situation,” she said.

The new entrance requirement has meant weeks, or months, of Zoom test prep for a set of parents notorious for trying to get an edge on one another, all in the belief that the right kindergarten sets a kid on a path to the Ivy League. A previous widely used test was abandoned because schools felt that aggressive test prep sapped its value.

To prepare, parents have hired tutors to conduct once- or twice-weekly video calls, sometimes switching among instructors to allow their children to get used to new faces. The idea, as one father described it, was to have the child do so many sessions, and with different people, that the real assessment would feel like just another call.

The so-called Thinking & Engagement Assessment carries a one-time fee of $250, waived for families applying for financial aid with a household income of under $150,000, according to schools’ websites. The test grew out of a nonprofit formed by seven schools, called the Covid Response Admissions Project, and is expected to be given to 1,500 children this year, according to a spokesperson for one of the schools. An additional 21 schools signed on to use the assessment this fall, the spokesperson said.

Some notable schools in the city aren’t participating: Horace Mann and Riverdale are using a separate virtual exam, and at least one school, Saint David’s, is conducting optional in-person visits: outside, socially distanced, with protective equipment.

For many schools, the new T&E assessment is just one part of the application — much as how colleges and universities say that SAT scores are only one factor in admissions.

“The intention is to use it just this year as a stop-gap measure as we conduct our process online,” said Kelly West, director of admission at the Browning School, which is using the new test. “It’s really just a piece of the puzzle.”

Parents also write essays, as they’ve traditionally done, to give a fuller picture of their child. And some schools say they will do separate video interviews to glean more insight. In other cases, parents are submitting their own home videos. One family strung together clips of their son cooking and singing. While counselors warn parents against making major productions, many still felt compelled to put in some effort.

Meanwhile, there’s great secrecy, even among parents, about what the T&E assessment is like. Nobody wants to give another person’s child an edge over their own, said the father, who is sending his second child into the private-school system.

The assessment measures language, reasoning and problem-solving skills, as well as “teachability,” according to information on schools’ websites.

Parents are required to be nearby, but with headphones on, so that they can’t be involved in the interview, according to instructions online. Some have glanced at the computer screen and heard children shout out some answers. They’ve gleaned tidbits — How do certain words and letters sound? Which object is the biggest or smallest? — with the quizzing weaved into a story.

Already, test-prep and tutoring companies have kicked into gear, offering products marketed around the brand-new test. Bright Kids, a Manhattan-based tutoring and publications company, sells a $375 workbook that says it covers all the concepts that will be on the T&E. It was already in development and tweaked to fit the new test, company founder Bige Doruk said.

The company has done Zoom tutoring sessions for kindergarten readiness including the T&E with about 100 children, at rates up to $195 an hour, Doruk said.

Whether 4- and 5-year-olds can be tested for anything has long been debated. “They keep wanting to test 4-year-olds and evaluate who is the smartest and most qualified, despite the fact that so many educators think that making a prediction about a 4-year-old’s future potential based on an exam is ludicrous,” said Emily Glickman, president of Abacus Guide Educational Consulting. “It’s a bad idea and especially this year. Plenty of 4-year-olds don’t like Zoom.”

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