Dillon is a North Seattle kindergartener with unusual verbal skills, a keen memory and a love for detail. In preschool, he would often become passionate about subjects and activities that would leave his peers staring blankly.
When researching kindergarten options for Dillon, then age 4, his parents (who preferred their names not be used in this article) decided to have his IQ tested. "We did it to expand our options, knowing how important it would be to find a school where people understood Dillon, who he is as student," his mother says.
It wasn't an easy decision, she adds. "I really worried that it was inappropriate to subject a child this young to testing. With kids this age, you just don't know if it's going to be a good day or a bad day, and if they're going to be interested enough to make it through the test. I was prepared for Dillon to come running out halfway through."
As it turned out, Dillon's parents were pleasantly surprised. "The psychologist made the experience very comfortable, and Dillon actually found it fun! When he did come running into the waiting room, he had a big smile on his face and the psychologist said it was all over," his mother recalls.
The plethora of independent primary schools in the Puget Sound region include several that describe themselves as programs for "highly capable" children (a term now used commonly in place of "gifted"). These are kids who demonstrate very advanced cognitive skills -- the ability to reason and understand at a level considerably above their age level.
Highly capable children come in all sorts of packages, but some traits that are common in the pre-primary ages include a high degree of intensity and focus, sophisticated sense of humor and advanced use of language. These kids often share certain social and emotional characteristics as well, such as perfectionism and a tendency to become easily frustrated.
Schools for highly capable children aim to provide an environment that is both challenging and nurturing of their specific needs. To help identify these students, such schools require IQ testing as a layer in their kindergarten admissions process. In the case of The Evergreen School in Shoreline, Open Window School in Bellevue and Seattle Country Day School in Seattle, for example, an applicant must score above a certain threshold to be considered further. Seattle's University Child Development School also requires testing but does not have a minimum score requirement.
IQ testing is generally not required for preschool admission (for those schools that start at age 3 or 4). However, some schools require that pre-kindergarten students submit scores and meet the minimum requirement in order to continue on to kindergarten.
Wilder Dominick, head of school at Open Window, says that considering IQ test scores as part of the admission process serves several valuable purposes: "Testing provides one piece of the puzzle -- a piece that is hard to get otherwise in a short period of time. It reveals certain kinds of cognitive abilities that correlate highly to school-setting skills. Testing is also neutral and controlled. It helps us to ensure that we are basing our admissions decisions on the most important factors and admitting kids who will be well-served by the program and likely to thrive in it," she says.
Dominick and her colleague Nancy Wells, admissions director at Open Window, also emphasize that test scores function "only as a jumping-off point" in their consideration of a prospective student. They also stress that the scores are not used to rank children, or for any purposes beyond the admissions process.
Dominick urges parents who decide to pursue testing to find a very good licensed psychologist to administer the test -- someone they feel compatible with and who has had lots of experience working with young children. Schools that require IQ testing for admissions often have referral lists on their Web sites, or parents can call the school office for recommendations. Talking to friends about the test providers they've used and having initial phone conversations with one or two can also be very helpful.
The Weschsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI-III) is the test preferred by most schools and test providers. The other main test in use, the Stanford-Binet V, is typically used as a secondary option, in cases where parents seek a retest. For a child age 5 and under, administering an IQ test typically takes one-and-a-half to two hours and costs approximately $300.
Carol Cole, Ph.D., a Seattle-based psychologist, has administered IQ tests to many children in this age group. Cole says that parents often come to her for testing because they've fallen in love with a particular school that requires it, or because they're worried about their child being bored academically.
"For parents who believe -- based on their own observations and those of their child's teachers -- that their preschooler might have advanced cognitive abilities, IQ testing can be a useful tool in school decision-making," Cole says.
Parents are often concerned about the testing being a negative experience for their child and are trying to weigh the possible benefits, she adds. "I'm in the position of reassuring them that for most kids, it's fun. It can feel long, and kids may be tired at the end, but that is the worst that most kids will experience."
According to Cole, the IQ test is just a sample of behavior during one short time period, and there can be many reasons why a child -- particularly one of preschool age -- might not perform to the best of his or her abilities. "There could be attention or concentration issues, or the child could be shy and inhibited about showing what they know. Even a minor case of sniffles could result in a score that is lower than it should be," she notes.
Cole says parents can help their young child feel comfortable with the testing experience by preparing them appropriately. She recommends avoiding the word "test," instead using language such as "questions and activities that will help us figure out how you think, what's easy for you and what's harder, what you've learned so far and what you haven't learned yet." Parents should tell their child that they want this information so they can choose the best school for him or her. Says Cole, "You don't want to say: 'Just go have fun.' You need them to take it seriously and try their best, take their time, think through the questions. But you don't want to pressure them either. It's a balancing act."
Aside from behavior and temperament issues, research shows that IQ tests are less accurate as predictors of learning and achievement before the age of 6. This means that kids under 6 are more likely to receive a change in score if they later retake the test.
The Seattle School District and several other nearby districts offer gifted programs beginning in first grade. Parents or teachers can nominate kindergarteners for these programs, and the students are then tested to determine whether they meet the threshold for entrance. For information on public school testing, consult your school district Web site or talk to your child's teacher or school administrator.
Allison Dworkin, ParentMap's special projects editor, lives in Seattle and has two daughters.