Can Early SAT Scores Predict a Gifted Kid's Path?
For decades, gifted adolescents have participated in "talent searches." These involve giving these children out-of-level tests in order to more accurately measure their abilities. First pioneered by the late Julian Stanley of Johns Hopkins University, the concept is based on a simple observation. On grade-level tests, gifted kids tend to score at the 99th percentile. Give them a "tougher" test, such as the SAT in 7th or 8th grade, though, and their scores spread out over the entire bell curve. In theory, this should give educators information on which kids need just a bit of enrichment, and which need radical acceleration, early college, etc.
In theory. As readers of this blog know, the vast majority of schools do absolutely nothing with the scores besides congratulating the kids and maybe having a ceremony.
But anyway... Vanderbilt University just released a study noting that gifted children's scores in 7th and 8th grade can actually predict their career paths. You can read about the study in a Bloomberg article here. Young teens who did best on the math portion of the SAT tended to excel later in science, math, and technology. Young teens who did best on the verbal portion of the SAT tended toward the humanities.
I have two thoughts on this. The first is "no kidding." Children do not magically decide their professions at age 22 based on nothing more than pulling a career out of a hat. Usually there have been things that hold their interest along the way, clues that they excel in one particular area. A kid who's really good in math is quite likely to continue studying math and to choose a profession that involves math.
The second thought, though, is that this was entirely wrong in my case, for a reason that also hints at the limitations of talent searches in their current form. In 8th grade, I scored a perfect 800 on the math section of the SAT. I scored a 630 on the verbal. For a variety of reasons, math is viewed as a more cut-and-dried area in which to be gifted. The levels are more clear (first arithmetic, then algebra, then calculus...) It's more easy to show mastery. Add in the fact that I had a very mathematically gifted older brother, and my family and schools found it easier to accelerate me in math. I took algebra in 6th grade, took geometry the summer after 7th grade, and so knew everything that would be covered on the SAT math section by the time I took it as an 8th grader. My perfect score did not show that I should pursue math. It simply showed that my mathematical abilities had been nurtured.
Children with verbal talents, though, have a far rougher road ahead of them. In the early grades, writing is more about creativity than honing the craft. Grammar is a lost art. Few sixth graders are assigned analytical papers on, say, Tolstoy, in which they can advance some original interpretation. If you master the past tense, it's not entirely clear that the subjunctive is next. Reading will boost your vocabulary, but so does having well-versed people to talk with. Unfortunately, this is not really a reality for many gifted kids stuck in age-level classrooms.
So verbal ability is not as readily recognized. I spent hours writing stories at night as a kid, but my verbal scores lagged far behind my math scores. I thought for years that meant I should go into math or science, until I finally realized in college that writing is what made me happiest.
It's always a dicey idea to layer one's personal experience on top of a study in order to draw conclusions, but I would hesitate to draw the conclusion that Prof. David Lubinski of Vanderbilt did. He told the Vanderbilt News Service that since differences in potential can be noted at age 13, this offers "opportunities for educators and policymakers to develop programs to cultivate these individuals based on their unique strengths and abilities." I think it's just as important to follow the interests of the child. That will tell you as much as a score.