Wednesday, September 12, 2007

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.


InTheFastLane said...

This is what I struggle with, with my daughter. She is moderately gifted in math, but extremely gifted in language and verbal skills. She reads, thinks, writes with a skill far beyond her years. But, in schools it is easy to have accelerated math classes, and not so easy to accelerate language. In 6th grade they only had honors classes for math. That was it. This year (7th grade) I had to fight to get her on the team that had GT english, because her math grade last year (not her test score - these didn't match up. Her standardized test score was much higher than her grade would indicate) only qualified her to take pre-algebra in 7th grade rather than algebra (the GT class). Thus, she ended up having to take math on one team and english on another team. This was a huge deal for the school to make this compromise for her. My husband thinks we should have pushed for her to be in the GT math too since she is capable of that level work, but we got one concession, we were unlikely to get the second.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so what can we DO? What can be done for kids like the daughter of inthefastlane, or my daughter ( who scored an 800 SAT verbal this year as a 12 year old)?

This is a subject near and dear to my heart. We struggled for years with schools who said that yes, she's gifted, she speaks well, is creative, reads years above grade level...but. Always the "but"...usually followed by the "is she really understanding it" line. Or the "there are many other children just as bright as her" line. Or the "bring more to the discussion, you can get something out of any class" line (ignoring the frustration of not being called on, of not having any peers to understand you or with whom to have a conversation).

No one could *see* it. She wasn't composing symphonies or day-trading or hacking computers...things society might value and expect of highly gifted kids. She wasn't overtly geeky. She was/is just incredibly knowledgeable, poised and well spoken, a kid who knows at least something about everything it seems.

We had a principal who offered to accelerate an additional year in math if our daughter could pass all the end-of-year units. Some she passed, some she didn't, so no acceleration in math. Meanwhile she was pleading for "harder" books. This same child, in first and second grade, asked when they were going to study "real history" instead of "your community" (although in retrospect 2nd grade was her best year...she was given unfettered access to the school library.) What the principal did was like asking Tiger Woods to bake a cake and Julia Childs to hit a golf ball. The system just didn't know what to do for verbal giftedness, especially since radical acceleration, to their minds, was not an option.

Perhaps nothing could have been done for my daughter because she's such an outlier (and which is why she's homeschooling this year). But it sure is frustrating, even within the gifted community, when you see the measures that are taken to foster math and science talent.

Anonymous said...

"The measures that are taken to foster math and science talent" are mainly coming from professional scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who are appalled at what the schools are doing. I have not seen nearly as much effort by professional historians, writers, and others in the humanities---there does not seem to be the same sense of outrage at the educational level of the schools by the professionals---at least their professional societies aren't spending much time or effort on providing educational opportunities.

It is true that identifying kids gifted in math is relatively easy, as there are fairly valid, reliable tests for math skills. Identifying those gifted in science is very hard, particularly since science is almost untaught now that math and reading are the focus of NCLB.

Identifying kids gifted in the humanities is particularly difficult, as there are no decent tests and subjective evaluations vary so enormously. There are some adequate achievement tests, but these only identify who has already learned a lot and they focus mainly on knowledge of facts, not mental skills.

Anonymous said...

I too scored an 800 on the verbal sat in 7th grade but I don't think that greatly surprised anyone since I was reading Shakespeare on my own at 8 and writing a weekly spot on a radio show before I was 10. My mother, who is a writer herself, used her name with the station and read my writing on the show but she gave me the money and i was grateful for the outlet. I don't write anymore.I never felt challenged because I never received any feedback so I became bored and frustrated.I never felt like I was growing. My first drafts written hastily in the hallways before class were accepted with the same response as those I slaved over for days. An A and no comments.I was in a gifted program in all subjects including english.The difference was you could skip any math class you wished by getting an 80 on the final exam and we offered differential equations and linear algebra for those who could handle it and courses at the local universities after that. They did not allow you to skip an English class by showing that your vocabulary,interpretation skills and writing ability were beyond what the class had to offer,and they did not offer any challenges beyond the ap english classes.I suppose it was better than being stuck in a "normal" classroom. Most of my classes, being 2 to 3 grades ahead, were at an appropriate level for my abilities and it was wonderful to have the company of other children with whom I could have conversations and connections without having to explain myself. However, i feel like I lost something very important by having the oppurtunity to nurture that gift i had.

Anonymous said...

"Few sixth graders are assigned analytical papers on, say, Tolstoy, in which they can advance some original interpretation."

Our experience is that even at the high school level students cannot advance original interpretation when analyzing literary works. My sister and I have both been marked down considerably for doing so.

Who gets the A's, the accolades, the high GPA's, the academic honors, and acceptances to the most selective colleges and universities? The sudents who parrot teachers' opinions and interpretations. No critical thinking required, here. Any student who dares to entertain an original thought is told they are incorrect. Colleges and universities pass over original thinkers because too many teachers use the power of grades to oppress those who can think for themselves. And too many colleges and universities use GPA's and class rank as key factors in their admissions decisions.

Is it an ego thing that some (many?) teachers refuse to consider interpretations other than their own as equally valid even when substantiated by the support of citations and logic? Who knows?

But more importantly, how do divergent thinking students fight back in a system that is so stacked against them?

Anonymous said...

another part of the problem is that frankly student who are gifted in math and science are considered smarter than those who are gifted in the humanities because language is something we take for granted. It is not often said out loud but it is one of the underlying assumptions of many supposedly educated people that engineers are always more intelligent that writers or lawyers.

Amy said...

Actually, I think the thing about it being easier to test well in math is reversed in many situations.

Think about it--the SAT covers algebra and geometry, and if the child hasn't been exposed to those, the score'll be lower. On the other hand, books are readily available, and a child with a natural verbal gift need only indulge in hours of reading every day for years to score 800 on the verbal section of the SAT by age 12 (I also did that).

But, yeah, it's hard. Seems like a few other people or their children here are in the same boat as me. I'm 16, a senior in high school, and I don't know what to think about the lack of acceleration in language or the lack of acceleration in general (skipping one grade doesn't make much difference).

I stabbed myself in the arm and spent hours picking scars into my legs and scratching them into my palm, wrist, and face last year rather than write an essay. I can't write anything if I think about it. On the other hand, I can quickly become local goddess of many online communities by expressing things everyone thinks and feels but can't access and channel through words. Somehow, that social contact and that shaping experience of communing with the internal and internalizing the external, then verbalizing what I've communed with, seems far more valuable than any degree of formal education or chit-chat with qualified, advanced individuals.

James said...

The problem, in my opinion, is that there is no objective way to determine a person's ability when it comes to the English language. There is no right or wrong answer like you see with Mathematics and Science, unless you're talking about vocabulary, spelling, grammar, etc. I thought about prefacing this by saying that I am not gifted in English, I'm above average at the most. The fact that English is such a subjective subject is the very reason why I take little heed of it, I merely advance to the point where I can understand others and have others understand me, beyond that I see it as a waste.

On a different note, the public education system will probably never be suitable for a gifted student simply because it is designed for the masses. The biggest issue is that there is no situation that works out well for the student. You either have a student with kids his age, struggling to move ahead while the others hold him back, or you have a scenario where the child is placed in a group of students who are older than him but on the same intellectual level. I feel like people don't recognize the damage this causes to the child in GT because the simple fact is: you probably won't fit in. There are some success stories but the vast majority of kids I have seen in this situation (myself included) have had to deal with being an outcast. The solution, in my opinion, is private school. Generally you can find a school that will cater to your needs, assuming you have the financial freedom to send your child to private school. I look forward to more children opening up their options and attending private school because it gets a bad wrap most of the time.

ice said...

I will start by saying I am an "advanced English student" at most. I received a 630 in 8th grade; yet, I excel in math. I received an 800 in the 8th grade. In 9th grade, I am enrolled in AP Calc BC. It is far easier to advance mathematically then in the Humanities simply because, math is very clean cut and dry. Your in Algebra, Geometry, Calc. etc. In order to end up in calc, I simply aced my way through pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, algebra II, and pre-cal in 2 years. Doing the same in English is impossible. This is because English levels are blurred, you read novels, review vocab, and write essays, no matter the level. A teacher may consider someone a great writer, but it is harder to put them in a specific level. i.e. this person should be in English level 5. For this reason, English scholars have simply been, for the most part, labeled as simply intelligent contributes to their respective grades. Unfortunately, I really cannot think of any reasonable solution to this issue.

Kendi Kim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kendi Kim said...

Sorry, I made a typo in my first posting, and it was a huge difference in meaning, so I am retyping it:

I think the best thing, is for kids to spend their childhood having lots of unique, engaging, meaningful, and challenging experiences. If I had it my way, they gifted kids would study by traveling.... but, of course this deal is difficult to achieve, since most people can't afford to travel all year long, and to have a private tutor follow around explaining and guiding as the kid goes along. I don't think school is the answer. In some sense, school is for people who want to be told knowledge, not for those who want to experience and discover knowledge. And yet, school is the only way to get to meet some very intelligent people, so one can have conversations with them.

If I had a choice between spending $250,000 to send my kid to a really good private school for 8 years of elementary to middle school, and then I have the alternative of traveling around the world with them for 8 years and to have a tutor go with us as a kind of guide and just read a lot of books instead --- I'd pick the traveling, experiential method. I'd rather my son go see the grand canyon than to look at a photo of it. You can't smell the river in a photo. I'd rather he ride the rapids, and learn about the native americans that lived in the deserts and dealth with flash floods, than to hear a teacher tell him about it indoors. I'd rather he go to Italy and see where pompeii once was, and feel the sun on his back while he stands there imagining himself into the past.... Of course, I am not against books. I am NOT against books -- just, being stuck indoors and being TOLD what to know.

Kids should get out and travel as much as possible. I don't mean to disneyland. I mean, like to the ocean and australia and the north pole and stuff like that.

If the kid is really gifted, they don't need a great teacher -- they just need a stimulating environment where they can be free to be themselves.

Kendi Kim said...

It doesn't matter what kind of level you're achieving in school. It doesn't prove anything substantive. It might prove that the person is a really good robot.

Realize, that everything a student learns in school is NEW KNOWLEDGE that someone else discovered ON THEIR OWN.

The only useful thing about school, for scholarly types, is that they end up learning the "lingo" of a special subject matter, so that they can engage in discussions with other thinkers in that subject domain, which can be pretty fun too. I'd say that's about it though, in terms of usefulness. I think it's much more exciting to discover and write a book about a brand new genre of math called GEOMETRY, than it is to learn it.......... blah. I bet back then, discovering geometry was as exciting as discovering the atomic bomb.

Anyway, memorizing other people's discoveries are like having to wear an older sibling's "hand-me-downs". Who wants to have that?????

Kendi Kim said...

Finally, a word for Amy and/or those anonymous 'complainers'.....

Forget about interpreting Tolstoy. Just write your own goddamn book. End of story.

Seriously, not a joke. If you've got a good argument, write it and forget about trying to get approval. If your immortal soul within you tells you that it's a certain way, share it with the world. You might not be discovered for 400 years, like Da Vinci, but at least you put it out there and did what you came to do. Don't wait for the world to be ready for you, before you decide to perform. If you do, you may never get the chance to do your stuff....

Anonymous said...

Ha ha, when I was 12, I got a 240 Verbal and 550 Math. That's before they recentered the scores, though, to where now thousands get perfect SATs. Back then, only one or two high school students would get a perfect score, and it would make national news. During the verbal portion, I remember looking at the words with wonderment - I had never seen any of those words except for in problem 1. So I did the first problem and I think left everything else blank. The math I knew about half of the problems - I was only in pre-algebra at the time, so I got a 550, which was 70th percentile of college bound seniors. We didn't have any advanced verbal classes. We had an advanced math class, which I had started in but stopped doing the homework because of a rigorous gymnastics schedule.

Anonymous said...

By the way, my SAT score didn't improve much by my junior year. My GMAT score, however, was in the 96th percentile because it doesn't depend on exposure to certain obscure words or root words.

Evan Adams said...

Profoundly gifted adult with an MFA in creative writing here: I've always done well in English and verbal intelligence things (learning other languages isn't 1:1, but in my case it carries over), and I too almost went into a scientific field until I got to college and realised that, as much as I love neurobiology and psychology, writing makes me much happier. So now I write stories that are heavily informed by my knowledge of neurobiology. It's great.
I cringe a little when I see the assertion that English skills beyond what's necessary (by what definition) to communicate are a waste. That's not actually different from saying that no-one needs math skills beyond what they'll need to make a household budget or something. I have very fast and accurate mental arithmetic, but the last time I even needed to use algebra was in my junior year in college, when I wanted to calculate the rate at which to drink to maintain a specific blood alcohol content.
Something to be considered here is that advanced level training does absolutely exist for English skills, both in writing and literature. There's absolutely no reason a 12 year old can't start working on college level literary analysis if they're ready. If someone's available who knows the material, you can teach them all the literary theories that matter (maybe skip New Criticism, the only reason to teach it is so they won't get enamored with it if they discover it later on), up through the various flavors of post-deconstructionism. Have them write about the same text through a number of these lenses. Have them try to come up with their own post-deconstructionist theory and write something using it. Have them read against the text. Compare literary analysis and "reading against the text" to phenomena like "meta" and "crackfic" in fanfiction communities, if they're that sort (they probably are). Let them play with intertextuality because it is literally the most fun. This, incidentally, may also provide the beginnings of an answer to "what kind of career do you pursue when the thing you're best at is reading."
Kids more gifted in creative writing have a somewhat simpler path, because just reading and writing is all you have to do to get better at that. It's even harder to gauge someone's level of giftedness at it, so try to connect them with adult writers; not necessarily professional authors, unless you happen to have one around who has the time, but graduate students or similar if you have a college nearby. Or help them connect safely with online writing communities where their age won't matter. That second thing is a good idea whether they're particularly gifted or not, actually, if they want to write, but the time when feedback is really useful will come much sooner for a gifted young writer. Mentorship and feedback are helpful, although not necessary, and only an actual writer will really be able to tell whether they're advanced enough to benefit from them.