Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Why Wait Until Third Grade?

I was recently sent an interesting article about a gifted preschool program called the ECAP Academy in Wichita, Kansas. Kids as young as three are tested for giftedness and, if admitted, introduced to a preschool curriculum designed to stretch their little brains.

I can't comment on the school specifically, or the test (which was developed by the school's leaders), but the existence of a few gifted preschool programs like this around the country raise some interesting questions.

Since the mainstream recognition of gifted children and gifted education a few decades ago, schools have generally screened for giftedness in second or third grade. This is also the age in which schools tend to start any gifted programming they may offer. But many parents of highly gifted children have known since very early on that there was something different about their kids. So why do schools wait so long to identify and intervene?

There are a few potential explanations, some of which show good faith toward the whole concept of giftedness, and some which do not. In the "good faith" category, there's the explanation that schools often use IQ tests to identify giftedness, and such tests can be unreliable when used with very young children. Though there are preschool admissions tests (which we hear about a lot here in New York!), and some IQ tests are normed for young children, anyone who's spent much time with a 2-3 year old knows there are a lot of other things that can affect performance. The kid may not want to spend time with a stranger. The kid may want a snack, want a nap, etc. But good preschool programs already take this into account. And there's a big difference between testing a child at 2 or 3, and testing him or her at age 5 (which is when, incidentally, the Davidson Institute recommends testing potentially highly gifted children).

The other potential explanation is the more negative one. Many a parent has been told that kids all even out by third grade. Hence, this is when you can tell if a child is actually gifted, as opposed to, I don't know, faking it. So schools only identify and offer programming in third grade or later.

Aside from not being true, I hardly think the argument that kids all move toward the median is an argument against testing for giftedness earlier. Why not screen multiple times? Maybe more kids will be identified as needing intervention in third grade than in first. That's fine. There's no reason identification has to be a one-shot deal.

But beyond that, if you think about it, this comment shows a fundamental distrust of parents.
The unstated message is that privileged or neurotic parents have been hot-housing their toddlers, and any sign of early giftedness is just evidence that these parents have been shoving flashcards in their tots' faces since they exited the womb. Once the professional educators take over when the kids are 5 or 6, this will all be sorted out.

There are a few problems with this attitude. First, you don't actually have to know how to read to be screened for giftedness (see the tests for 2-3 year olds). Kids who have no exposure to formal education can certainly show signs of extreme intelligence. So it isn't a necessary first step to get all kids up to speed on reading in order to figure out who needs more challenging work.

And second, third grade is actually way too late for many highly gifted children to be identified and served. As the Davidson Institute notes, "Profoundly gifted children often have very difficult early school experiences, which could have been ameliorated or prevented entirely if parents and teachers had had accurate information about their abilities, academic instructional levels, and social/emotional needs. Gifted girls may 'go underground' by age eight, unwilling to demonstrate their precocious abilities in public for fear of making others feel inadequate. Extremely gifted children can also reach the ceilings of various test instruments if you wait until they are older to test them (some profoundly gifted children even reach the ceiling of the Stanford-Binet LM by the age of eight or nine). With any other exceptionality, we would not deliberately wait until several years of elementary school have passed in order to identify the exceptionality."

The last sentence hints at the big problem. Many people see gifted education as some kind of reward. So you wait until all kids have been adequately introduced to formal schooling, and then reward the kids who get good grades with pull-outs that highlight bugs, Robin Hood, the culture of Japan, etc. Done right, gifted education should, instead, be an intervention for kids who need it. Kids are screened for hearing issues at birth because we know that failure to identify such a problem will stunt their learning for life. Likewise, failure to identify and accommodate extreme intelligence can stunt children, too.


Rational Jenn said...

Interesting post!

On a somewhat related note--is professional testing always necessary? My kids are somewhere on the gifted continuum and I've taken some informal online surveys (through Hoagie's Gifted website maybe?) that have confirmed my suspicions. We are going to homeschool for a number of reasons. (They are both very young still.) Is there any advantage to having my kids tested? What are some of the reasons for and against formal testing? Thanks.

SwitchedOnMom said...

I've written about this issue in spades on my blog,

Anonymous said...

I think there are additional (or related) reasons for waiting until third grade that are more generous than those you ascribe to schools. Public schools are a social "melting pot" and there are children from all backgrounds. There is real fear of irrevocably placing children early. Part of that fear is that a truly gifted child will be missed because some skill kicks in late, but strong (like the child who at 7 goes from not reading to reading at a 5th grade level within a month or two) either because of environmental issues (child was never read to) or developmental issues.

In particular, there's a need to distinguish between bright early, coached readers (who may indeed level out by 3rd grade) and the genuinely gifted, who may not be early readers. Since preschool and early ed. teachers are so poorly trained in identifying gifted children, and since in past generations such identification was used as a proxy for class or wealth, suspicions about a school's ability to make such a distinction are well-founded in some places.

Of course, there are successful examples, particularly the Hollingsworth preschool program in New York, but one suspects that with the ability to draw from a very large population, the results may be very different from those you'd see in areas with smaller populations or where travel times would be prohibitive for a preschooler (i.e., many suburban communities).

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for doing this topic! I've had this on my mind for so long now since my son started school (last year in kindergarten) and now in first grade. My district doesn't test until the end of 2nd grade and even then it is a group test as I understand..Otis-Lennon. I have yet to hear why they don't test sooner (although I thought I heard the even out theory in a previous meeting..and oh they don't test, but screen for their programs. :) He is getting subject acceleration in lang. arts this year, but I still feel it isn't adequate. If they would only test earlier, I feel he could get the ed. program which better suits his needs.
Thanks again for writing!

nbosch said...

Did anyone mention that underachievement can be entrenched by 3rd grade. I don't think all gifted kids need early interventions but it is important for very bright kids---each kiddo is different. As a gifted parent and a veteran teacher of gifted kids I think the primary grades are the hardest for gifted kids. They have no skills for working independently so it is hard to differentiate for them. Too bad each little gifted kid, especially K-2, can't have full time adult helpers!! (she smiles)

Heather said...

I'm not sure I buy into the importance of early IQ tests. It's a number and that can create a box in itself.

Instead of placing importance on IQ testing, perhaps it would be better if early ed teachers better recognized the different characteristics of gifted children.

In my experience, most people are only aware of the characteristics of academically gifted students and not those intellectually or creatively gifted.

Instead of an influx of test scores, I'd prefer to see an influx of awareness of the different types of giftedness so teachers would better recognize those with the potential.

Brian said...

I grew up as a gifted child. I had developed a life-threatening medical condition and the public schools provided a tutor who helped to homeschool me. By the 2nd grade, I was beginning 6th grade work. Then, I came back to school to join my peers in the third grade and was bored out of my mind. Kids could not catch on and we covered the same material for weeks when everything was obvious to me from the beginning.

The school system could not accommodate a third grader with a 6th grade curriculum. I had to repeat the entire curriculum from the 3rd grade to the 6th grade, but this time, very, very slowly over a 4-year period. Can you sense my frustration, even today?

I went from being an "A" student to a "C" student. I got in trouble for daydreaming almost everyday. The school system had managed to crush my love for learning and to stifle my natural curiosity.

Now, both of my children attend ECAP Academy in Wichita, KS. They love school and are able to work independently at their own rate. For the sake of all gifted children, I hope they can find similar opportunities without having to experience the frustrations that I faced.

Finally, the website for ECAP Academy has moved to

tootsiepopjen said...

It is important for teachers to recognize gifted traits. Speaking as a teacher, I find the most frustrating part of referring a child for gifted testing is that the testing that is used is not effective, and the levels of IQ required to receive any types of services is so exclusive that only <1% of a population of 800 students qualify. This leaves a lot of highly intelligent kids struggling with boredom in the classroom.
I have had the pleasure of working with ECAP founder Val Weeks. Her testing is innovative and accurate. It is difficult for some parents to hear that their child does not qualify for such services, therefore discrediting the evaluator is easier than admitting your child may not be gifted. So, to "anonymous", I feel your warning is unwarrented. I don't have a gifted preschooler, but if I did, she would most definately go to Ms. Weeks. Your comments about her work history are confusing, we taught at the same school together for four of the last 6 years you referred.
Finally, being identified as gifted is not as important as your child getting the appropriate education for his or her needs. The more help and resources available to parents with children of any exceptionality is welcome and appreciated.

EcoWarrior said...

I have found what I consider a a serious flaw in the behavior of the ECAP Academy in Wichita. Most will agree that we teach children far more by example than by instruction. Admittedly, my passion is environmental, with a focus on health for current and future generations (causes of global warming aside).
ECAP sends bushels of recyclables to the landfill -- in an irresponsible and trashy way, no less. They pile cardboard boxes around an overflowing dumpster. Those boxes are packed with decorative paper characters in excellent condition --could have been donated to a thrift store or recycled as mixed paper. This new-school-term decorating trash filled the covered bed and quad-cab backseat when we cleaned up the mess on Sunday to haul to the recycling center. THEN, on Monday there were almost-new, apparently once-sharpened pencils and fresh erasers littering all around the dumpster, along with dolls and 'stuff' --things we snagged to sterilize and take to the thrift store. I am in grandma mode and not as up-to-date on early childhood education as many of you, but ECAP Academy's irresponsibility toward the environment is very poor example, and makes one wonder whether they are responsible in other areas. Even Sesame Street(R) promotes environmental respect and good citizenship. Just think about it.

Anonymous said...

I agree that some of the items could have been donated but maybe you should step back for a moment and consider assisting to help the school rather than bashing them for their efforts of preparing for the upcoming school year.
If you are concerned with the overflowing dumpster, possibly contacting the owner of the location would be reasonable.
Yet, at the same time the original article is related to gifted children, not how ecofriendly a school may be.

dmitiro said...

everyone thinks their child is gifted. that is why tests are needed and it's the only reliable predictor. my own kids got perfect scores on the sat tests when they where in the 6th grade. they are never bored and always focused. they can attend a university right now if I would allow it. my point is that just because your kid gets straight A's in the worst school system in your state does not make them gifted. I have a brother who tells his daughter that she's gifted despite the fact that she can't pass 3rd grade. let kids be kids, and just because your kids are smarter than you it does not make them gifted. kids are smarter today than ever before because of a variety of factors. but that does not make them gifted. I know, my own kids are truly gifted and their test scores prove it.