Archive for February, 2013

Schools Ask: Gifted or Just Well-Prepared?

It’s no secret that kids born into better socioeconomic situations tend to perform better in school.  With the advantages of savvy parents, expensive tutors, and private schools, students from wealthy families often experience greater academic success.  Recent news reports that schools in New York are having an increasingly difficult time with gifted testing for this very reason – test prep companies are offering tutoring programs tailored to helping preschoolers score better on IQ tests.  As the numbers of students who test “gifted” skyrockets, testers are attempted to change the test to gain a more accurate assessment of who is  gifted  – and who is simply well prepared.  Read on for the full story. 



When the New York City Education Department announced that it was changing part of its admissions exam for its gifted and talented programs last year, in part to combat the influence of test preparation companies, one of those companies posted the news with links to guides and practice tests for the new assessment.

The day that Pearson, a company that designs assessments, announced that it was changing an exam used by many New York City private schools, another test prep company attempted to decipher the coming changes on its blog: word reasoning and picture comprehension were out, bug search and animal coding were in.

If you did not know what to make of it — and who would? — why not stop by?

Assessing students has always been a fraught process, especially 4-year-olds, a mercurial and unpredictable lot by nature, who are vying for increasingly precious seats in kindergarten gifted programs.

In New York, it has now become an endless contest in which administrators seeking authentic measures of intelligence are barely able to keep ahead of companies whose aim is to bring out the genius in every young child.

The city’s leading private schools are even considering doing away with the test they have used for decades, popularly known as the E.R.B., after the Educational Records Bureau, the organization that administers the exam, which is written by Pearson.

“It’s something the schools know has been corrupted,” said Dr. Samuel J. Meisels, an early-childhood education expert who gave a presentation in the fall to private school officials, encouraging them to abandon the test. Excessive test preparation, he said, “invalidates inferences that can be drawn” about children’s “learning potential and intellect and achievement.”

Last year, the Education Department said it would change one of the tests used for admission to public school gifted kindergarten and first-grade classes in order to focus more on cognitive ability and less on school readiness, which favors children who have more access to preschool and tutoring.

Scores had been soaring. For the 2012-13 school year, nearly 5,000 children qualified for gifted and talented kindergarten seats in New York City public schools. That was more than double the number five years ago. “We were concerned enough about our definition of giftedness being affected by test prep — as we were prior school experience, primary spoken language, socioeconomic background and culture — that we changed the assessment,” Adina Lopatin, a deputy chief academic officer in the Education Department, said.

And yet test prep companies leapt to action, printing new books tailored to the new test and organizing classes.

Natalie Viderman, 4, spent an hour and a half each week for six months at Bright Kids NYC, a tutoring company, working on skills like spatial visualization and serial reasoning, which are part of the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, or NNAT 2, the new gifted and talented test. She and her mother, Victoria Preys, also worked every night on general learning, test prep and workbooks, some provided by Bright Kids.

“It is my philosophy that if you can get more help, why not?” Ms. Preys said. She prepared her son the same way and he benefited, she said, scoring in the 98th percentile, qualifying him for a seat. She interpreted the Education Department’s decision to change the test and “raise the standards,” she said, as a message that it expected parents to do more. “We are increasing the standards, so you have to work with your kids more, to prep more,” she said.

“Every time these tests change, there’s a lot of demand,” Bige Doruk, founder of Bright Kids, said. She said she did not accept the argument that admissions tests had been invalidated by test prep. “It is not a validity issue, it’s a competitive issue,” she said. “Parents will always do what they can for their children.” And not all children who take preparation courses do well, she said. The test requires that 4-year-olds sit with a stranger for nearly an hour — skills that extend beyond the scope of I.Q. or school readiness.

Natalie also applied to Hunter College Elementary School in Manhattan; she missed the cutoff for the second round by a point.

Read on here.

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Anxious About Tests? Tips to Ease Angst

As a tutor, I’ve heard countless students complain that although they understand math concepts, their anxiety at test time causes them to temporarily forget everything they thought they knew just when they need it most. A recent article from the website MindShift details methods that researchers have found effective in combating this test anxiety. Among the techniques explored are breathing and relaxation exercises, as well as journaling negative thoughts just prior to test time. Read on for the full story.


As any parent or teacher knows, tests can create crippling anxiety in students–and anxious kids can perform below their true abilities. But new research in cognitive science and psychology is giving us a clearer understanding of the link between stress and performance, and allowing experts to develop specific strategies for helping kids manage their fears. These potential solutions are reasonably simple, inexpensive and, as recent studies show, effective. Some work for a broad range of students, while others target specific groups. Yet they’re unfamiliar to many teachers and parents, who remain unaware that test anxiety can be so easily relieved. Here, three such approaches:


When students feel nervous, their capacity to think clearly and solve problems accurately is reduced, says Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist at the University of Chicago. Students taking an exam must draw on their working memory, the mental holding space where we manipulate facts and ideas. “When students are anxious, their worries use up some of their working memory, leaving fewer cognitive resources to devote to the test,” Beilock explains. One method recently tested successfully by Beilock and a colleague, Gerardo Ramirez, had students spend ten minutes writing about their thoughts and feelings immediately before taking a test. The practice, called “expressive writing,” is used by psychologists to reduce negative thoughts in people with depression. They tried the intervention on college students placed in a testing situation in Beilock’s lab, and in an actual Chicago school, where ninth-grade students engaged in the writing exercise before their first high school final. In both cases, students’ test scores “significantly improved,” according to an article they published last year in the journal Science.

While one might imagine writing about a looming exam would only heighten students’ anxiety, Beilock says the opposite was the case. “Writing about their worries had the effect of ‘offloading’ them onto the page, so that the students had more cognitive horsepower available to apply to solving problems on the test,” she explains. For both groups, Beilock and Ramirez reported in Science, “one short writing intervention that brings testing pressures to the forefront enhances the likelihood of excelling, rather than failing, under pressure.”


Apprehension over tests can be especially common among minority and female students. That’s because the prospect of evaluation poses for them what psychologists call “stereotype threat”—the possibility that a poor performance will confirm negative assumptions about the group to which they belong (among the specious, anxiety-inducing tropes: girls can’t excel in math and science; blacks and Latinos aren’t college material). This additional layer of anxiety can lead such students to perform below the level they are capable of. “Girls, and black and Latino students, are often dealing with a double dose of test anxiety,” says Stanford University psychologist Gregory Walton. “The nervousness everyone feels when they’re being evaluated, plus the worry—conscious or not—that a poor performance will prove that the negative assumption about their group is correct.”

[Related: Girls and Math: Busting the Stereotype?]

Walton’s colleague at Stanford, psychology professor Geoffrey Cohen, devised an intervention aimed at reducing stereotype threat. Like the exercise designed by Beilock and Ramirez, it asks students to write briefly, but in this case participants are instructed to choose something they value and write about why it matters to them. “Music is important to me because it gives me a way to express myself when I’m mad, happy, or sad,” one participant wrote. In one study, this “values affirmation” exercise was shown to shrink the performance gap between white and black students by 40 percent. In another, it erased the gap in test scores between women and men enrolled in a challenging college physics course, raising the women’s average grade from a C to a B (higher than the average male student’s grade).


Younger kids aren’t immune from test anxiety. As early as first and second grade, researchers see evidence of anxiety about testing. Their worries tend to manifest in non-verbal signs that adults may miss, says psychologist Heidi Larson: stomachaches, difficulty sleeping, and a persistent urge to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom. “I had one mother tell me that her son had no problem with tests,” recalls Larson, a professor of counseling and student development at Eastern Illinois University. “Then a week later she came back and said that her son had burst into tears the night before the big end-of-year exam, saying that he was afraid he wouldn’t be promoted to the next grade.”

[Related: How to Deal With Kids’ Math Anxiety]

Larson designed an intervention especially for younger students, involving breathing and relaxation exercises, and examined its effectiveness on a group of third-graders. “We had students lie on mats on the floor of their classrooms. They closed their eyes and we asked them to focus on their breathing, then on tensing and relaxing groups of muscles in their legs, arms, stomachs and so on,” Larson recounts. “Some of the kids became so relaxed they fell asleep!” A control group of students at another school received no such training. The study, which was published in the Journal of School Counseling in 2010, reported that the relaxation intervention had “a significant effect in reducing test anxiety.”

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GPA Influenced by Friends and Peers

A new study published in the journal PLoS ONE reports that students’ academic standing is heavily influenced by friends.  Those students who associate with a higher GPA crowd are likely to see their own GPAs increase, while those who befriend lower GPA peers will likely see their own GPAs fall.  Past studies have reported similar findings on the effects of friends in other arenas of a student’s life, including emotional health and eating behaviors.  This study, however, is the most in depth study to examine the relationship between a teen’s friends and academic performance.  Read on for the full study. 


For hundreds of thousands of years, parents and their teens have had an ongoing battle over what kind of people the teen surrounds themselves with. The parents, in their many years of experience, have likely seen first-hand the effects a group of friends can have on a person. Now, in yet another case of science being applied to prove notions accepted as common fact, studies have shown this to be true.

According to a new study published this week in the journal PLoS ONE, a student’s GPA is clearly affected by who they choose to hang out with. A social network of students with higher GPAs will influence other students to raise their GPA as well. According to Hiroki Sayama from Binghamton University, lead author of this study, the converse is also true.

This conclusion isn’t necessarily ground breaking, of course. Previous research has shown that other aspects of a student’s life — such as their behavior, eating habits and emotional state — are easily influenced by whom they surround themselves with. For instance, if a student has a social network comprised of sad, unhealthy gamers, that student will likely begin to become the same way.

Though these behaviors have been identified, Sayama’s study is the first to observe this influence when it comes to academics, as well as study these effects over time.

To complete the research, Sayama, along with 4 high school students from New York, surveyed some eleventh-grade students to label their peers as either best friends, friends, acquaintances, relatives, or strangers. With this map of the students’ social networks, the researchers then set about determining these students’ GPAs and overall performance in school.

What they found was unsurprising: Those students who surrounded themselves with better-performing students were more likely to improve their own scores over time. Alternatively, those who surrounded themselves with under-performers saw their grades slip as a result.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that those listed simply as friends had the most influences on the students.

Those who were listed as best friends or acquaintances did not have the same influence on a student’s academics.

The team also concludes that, in the future, this effect could be much more easily tested. Rather than map out the entire social network as they’ve done in this research, students could be asked about their GPA, then ask them to list their friends. Once they know the GPAs of the friends, future researchers will be able to prove the influence friends have on one another.

“If our finding is validated through more extensive studies, this test might serve as a simple, handy predictor of the student’s future performance in various educational settings,” explain the research team in their published paper.

The team has said they’d like to see a larger study done in order to get to the point where smaller studies become just as accurate. For instance, the team claims they only looked mostly at one type of socio-economic demographic in this study. Were they to get results from multiple demographics, they might see some variations. For now it’s likely this study will suffice to any parent who wants to further bolster their complaints against one of their child’s friends.

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Fish Oil, Interactive Reading Programs Could Boost Intelligence

When many perceive IQ to be an absolute and unchangeable measure of intelligence, new studies are proving otherwise – early educational and nutritional intervenion has the potential to raise a child’s IQ by several points.  The recent study focuses specifically on the role of fish oil supplementation, which is believed to help a child’s neural development, and early educational interventions such as reading programs, which expose children to complex cognitive tasks during the most vital period of brain development.  4 to 7 point IQ differences were noted among the groups given supplementation and early educational intervention.  Read on for the full story. 

fish oil and reading

Parents seeking ways to boost the IQs of their young children can do so by making sure they choose a high-quality preschool, encouraging them to read, and supplementing their diets with fish oil, researchers from the New York University (NYU) Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development claim in a recently published study.

Writing in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, doctoral student John Protzko and professors Joshua Aronson and Clancy Blair, all from the NYU Steinhardt School, used a technique known as meta-analysis and compiled the findings from previous research to determine how effective different intervention types are when it comes to raising the intelligence of participating kids.

Together, the three researchers created what they dub the “Database of Raising Intelligence,” which includes a series of randomized controlled trials designed for youngsters from birth through kindergarten, the Association for Psychological Science (APS), which publishes the journal in which the study appears, explained in a January 25 statement.

The goal of the database, Protzko said, is to discover what things are actually effective when it comes to enhancing a growing child’s intellect, and which methods have little impact on IQ. “For too long, findings have been disconnected and scattered throughout a wide variety of journals. The broad consensus about what works is founded on only two or three very high-profile studies,” he explained.

Every study included in the database features subjects who had not been clinically diagnosed with any intellectual disabilities, each of whom were selected at random to participate in an intervention program for an extended period of time, the researchers said. The trials also used widely accepted measures of intelligence, they added.

“The larger goal here is to understand the nature of intelligence, and if and how it can be nurtured at every stage of development,” Aronson said. “This is just a first step in a long process of understanding. It is by no means the last word. In fact, one of the main conclusions is how little high quality research exists in the field and how much more needs to be done.”

Among the researcher’s findings was pregnant women and newborns who supplement their diets with foods that are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids had IQ scores that were more than 3.5 points higher than those who did not regularly consume the polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Protzko’s team believes the substance may play a key role in helping to develop nerve cells that a person’s body is unable to produce without them. However, they have not yet been able to establish whether or not other supplements, such as B-complex vitamins, iron, or zinc, had similar effects.

The APS statement also says the NYU study discovered that “enrolling an economically disadvantaged child into an early education intervention was found to raise his or her IQ by more than four points; interventions that specifically included a center-based education component raised a child’s IQ by more than seven points.

“The researchers hypothesize that early education interventions may help to raise children’s IQ by increasing their exposure to complex environments that are cognitively stimulating and demanding,” it added. “It’s not clear, however, whether these results apply more broadly to kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Protzko and his colleagues also report early childhood intervention programs that emphasize interactive reading programs, which encourage parents to read with their children, were found to boost those scores by more than six points, although the effects did not seem to apply to kids over the age of four. That would suggest interactive reading programs help spur on linguistic development in young children, which in turn increases their intelligence.

“Sending a child to preschool was found to raise his or her IQ by more than four points, and preschools that include a language development component were found to boost IQ by more than seven points,” the statement reported. “The link between preschool and intelligence could be a function of increased exposure to language or the result of the overall cognitive complexity of the preschool environment.

“Our current findings strengthen earlier conclusions that complex environments build intelligence, but do cast doubt on others, including evidence that earlier interventions are always most effective,” said Protzko. “Overall, identifying the link between essential fatty acids and intelligence gives rise to tantalizing new questions for future research and we look forward to exploring this finding.”

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The Coolest Kids Are Also The Biggest Bullies Says New Study

A recent study reports the not-too-surprising finding that the kids ranked by their classmates as the “coolest” also were ranked by their classmates as the biggest bullies.  The type of bullying seemed irrelevant according to the studies’ findings – gossiping was just as correlated with coolness as physical pushing or shoving.  Researchers aren’t sure of the causal link between being cool and being a bully.  Do kids already perceived as cool bully, or do kids who bully become cooler in their peers’ eyes?  Regardless of the answer, researchers hope that the new findings will lead to better preventive measures against bullying the future.  Read on for the full story.



A new study from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) revealed that “cool” kids in middle school had a tendency to participate in bullying more than others.

Bullying was defined as either “starting fights or pushing other kids around” or “spreading nasty rumors about other kids.” The UCLA psychology study found that bullying could help improve an individual’s social status and popularity among middle school students. In addition, students who were already considered popular utilized these forms of bullying.

The researchers believe that the findings of the study, which were recently published in the online edition of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, could help school administrators and anti-bullying programs improve their tactics for eliminating school bullying.

“The ones who are cool bully more, and the ones who bully more are seen as cool,” explained the study’s lead author Jaana Juvonen, a professor of psychology at UCLA. “What was particularly interesting was that the form of aggression, whether highly visible and clearly confrontational or not, did not matter. Pushing or shoving and gossiping worked the same for boys and girls.”

In the project, the researchers observed 1,895 ethnically diverse students from 11 Los Angeles middle schools. The students were dispersed across 99 different classes, with investigators conducting surveys at the start of the seventh grade, the fall of eight grade, and the spring of eight grade. During each of the three surveys, the students filled out questionnaires asking them to name the students who were thought to be the “coolest,” the students who usually started fights or pushed other students around, and those who spread mean rumors about other students.

Students who were considered “coolest” at some time during the study were also found to be the most aggressive the next time, and individuals who were named the most aggressive had a higher likelihood of being considered the coolest. The findings indicate that middle school kids reward both physical aggression and the spreading of nasty rumors.

“The impetus for the study was to figure out whether aggression promotes social status, or whether those who are perceived as popular abuse their social power and prestige by putting other kids down,” continued Juvonen, who has also served as a consultant to schools on anti-bullying programs. “We found it works both ways for both ‘male-typed’ and ‘female-typed’ forms of aggression.”

The outcomes of the research also show that anti-bullying programs need to be developed with sophistication and subtly to make an impact on students. The researchers propose that anti-bullying programs target bystanders whose responses to such incidents could help to either increase or decrease the interest in bullying.

“A simple message, such as ‘Bullying is not tolerated,’ is not likely to be very effective,” noted Juvonen in the statement.

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