Once upon a time there was a fairly clear method of selecting students for gifted programs. The child in question took an IQ test, and if the score was over 130, in you go. This method -- and IQ testing in general -- has fallen out of favor over the years. Now many programs use a variety of measures from grade level tests to school work to portfolios and teacher recommendations for admission. Some people consider this more "fair" than relying on one test. But, as a story out of Duxbury, Massachusetts, shows, this is not always the case.
The Boston Globe ran a story recently that "Duxbury's new program for 'gifted' children puts parents in uproar." Apparently, 14 3rd-5th graders were selected for the program, which was developed quietly. The children were chosen based on their matching "a chart of behavior traits associated with gifted children." Several families who had been agitating for more challenge for their children, who scored high on tests, discovered that their children were not included in the Gang of 14. This led to much finger-pointing and the like. Indeed, "At a forum on the program, held the first week of school, 150 parents peppered school officials with questions and accusations," the article notes. That's a lot more parents than kids in the program, suggesting that many more people think they have gifted kids than the school system decided had them. "Some even think that the kids selected for the program were chosen because their parents had 'connections' at the school," the reporter writes.
Of course, there's a certain element that's humorous about all this. If 14 children had been selected for a program called "remedial learning" or even something totally neutral, no one would be up in arms. It's just the reality of the gifted label. If someone is going to be labeled as "smart" then other people want their kids in too. But when you go down a road of choosing kids for programs based on behavioral charts and other extremely subjective measures, you do wind up in a gray area.
The beauty of IQ tests is that everyone takes the same test, and everyone is judged on the same scale. I've been writing profiles, for the past several months, of former finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search for Scientific American. In the past, Westinghouse gave applicants a test which functioned almost like an IQ screen in order to choose their finalists (now, the Intel search is almost entirely based on project results). The profile running this week is of a woman named Sister Julia Mary Deiters (born Rosemary Deiters; she later became a member of the Sisters of Charity) who grew up in Ohio in the 1930s and 1940s. No one from her school had been a Westinghouse finalist before, and she certainly didn't have much science background. Her parents hadn't gone past 8th grade. But on a standardized test, she stood out with the best-trained kids in the country.
When we lose sight of that fundamental fairness, we miss quite a bit. Perhaps IQ tests shouldn't be the only measure of giftedness. But I tend to think they can play a fairly large role.