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GATE Prep Classes Spark Controversy

{mosimage} Some people believe preparing a child to take the IQ test that determines whether they qualify for GATE is like prepping a high school kid for the SAT. Santa Barbara school officials don’t agree.

Some people believe preparing a child to take the IQ test that determines whether they qualify for GATE is like prepping a high school kid for the SAT. Santa Barbara school officials don’t agree.

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Beginning this year, parents of elementary students will be required to sign a statement promising that their children have not — and will not — take so-called GATE prep classes.

The new rule will kick in next month as parents receive notification that GATE-testing season is around the corner.

It is a bitter pill for a small private tutoring company that has been providing the service in Santa Barbara for years, and which now feels unfairly maligned. But officials at the Santa Barbara elementary school district say the practice is wrong, and should stop immediately.

“It’s not an appropriate thing to do, because it is supposed to be a cold test,” said Robin Sawaske, the district’s assistant superintendent of elementary education, referring to how the test is meant to measure innate ability. And “if you’re talking about equity issues — only people who can afford it tend to take advantage of it.”

Children who have received prepping — or whose parents are caught lying — will not get into the program, school officials said.

The rub actually started a few years ago, when the district learned that the local Dubin Learning Center  was giving students a prep test that was exactly the same as the IQ test elementary students were taking to get into GATE.

The center, a husband-wife duo that works out of a Victorian house downtown, promptly stopped administering the particular test. But they resumed using similar practice tests. Now, the district is trying to snuff out the practice for good.

Dubin co-founder Deidre Dubin said she finds the district’s strident stance against her service deeply upsetting.

“I’m an educator, so I’ve always held myself as a very ethical person,” she said. “I feel like we’ve been put in a position that really questions our integrity.”

Although GATE prepping constitutes just a small part of her business, Dubin said she doesn’t plan to stop. She maintains that preparing for a GATE test is no different than the now socially acceptable practice of preparing for the SAT exam.

"There’s no test you can’t prepare for," she said.

Dubin said the very notion of GATE prepping — and intelligence itself — is not as black and white as many people would like to believe.

“They claim it is a test you can’t prepare for because it tests an innate ability — but how do you define intelligence?” she said.

Dubin, who started the local learning center nearly 30 years ago with her husband, Barry, said they were trained in Los Angeles at the Marianne Frostig Center for Educational Therapy — a “pioneer in the field.”  There, they learned to discover — and then improve upon — weaknesses in a child’s cognitive ability. All this requires using IQ tests.

“The brain is considered to be plastic — malleable,” she said. “So regardless of whether it is used for GATE preparation, I think it’s a good thing to be doing with children — to be enhancing their cognitive ability.”

Dubin acknowledged that prepping tends to serve the more affluent families who can afford the $65-an-hour fee. But she said eliminating the prep service tends to give rise to other disparities. For instance, she said, kids from private schools aren’t accustomed to taking so many tests, and thus come to the public school setting at a disadvantage.

Plus, some of the less affluent students are allowed to pay on a sliding scale, she added.

Dubin said she suspects that the district’s policy — and resulting rumblings within the local parent and teacher community — may have taken a toll on her business. One thing is certain: Her enrollment is dropping. In the last three years, Dubin’s student base has shrunk from 70 students to 25, she said. The number of students receiving GATE-prep services has fallen from a dozen to six.

At least one local parent believes Dubin is getting a bad rap.

Conrad Curran, a parent at Washington Elementary, said his experience with Dubin over the years has been top-notch. He said it has benefited all three of his children, one of whom sailed into the GATE program with ease, and another who needed the extra help just to stay at grade level. Yet, he said, when he mentioned the center in passing to an administrator last year, she froze up, and told him that the district frowns upon the center’s GATE-prepping practice.

“We recommend Dubin all the time,” he said. “One or two of the moms have come back and said ‘We’ve kind of been warned not to go to Dubin.’ Warned not to get your child tutored by a couple of the best educators I’ve ever seen? That’s ridiculous.”

The issue of prepping for GATE isn’t confined to Santa Barbara. In Sacramento, the California Association for the Gifted takes a strong stance against it as well.

“Only rich people can afford the tutoring, and it becomes a very elitist program,” said Susan Seamons, the association’s executive director and former GATE teacher. “The kids from poverty, they couldn’t have that prep. They are competing against kids whose parents are trying to buy their way into the program.”

She added that in the case of students who have been prepped, the GATE test — which in Santa Barbara is called the Cognitive Abilities Test — measures little more than a student’s memory.

One local author believes the IQ test shouldn’t be used for determining GATE eligibility at all. Stephen Murdoch , author of “IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea,” is a critic of the IQ test, which he describes as a dated model.

“It hasn’t changed in the past century,” he said. “And we know a lot more about the brain now than they knew then.

“IQ tests do not test intelligence,” he added. “They test knowledge and some kind of hard-to-define abstract problem-solving ability.”

As for students who do well on the test, “in some at least narrow way they are smart,” he said. But the test, he said, does not predict how well a third-grader will perform in junior high, high school or beyond.

“I think it’s unfair to a student to have a high-stakes exam, which they take on one day, and which decides whether that child gets into GATE,” he said.

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