Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Junior Meritocracy, or the "Myth" of the Gifted Child

It's become a very popular piece to write: Some schools test kids before kindergarten for placement in gifted programs. IQ tests are problematic! 4-year-olds are hard to test! Therefore, giftedness is a myth!

The latest publication to jump on this bandwagon (which others, including Malcolm Gladwell and Po Bronson have also joined or hinted at) is New York magazine, whose cover story this week is called The Junior Meritocracy.

Jennifer Senior's article makes the usual points. First, IQ is not inherently stable. It can move by 10 points or so over time, and is likely to regress toward the mean. This means that a strict cut-off (aka 130 points) can be problematic. Also, tests can sometimes be coached, and very young children are hard to test. They'd rather play, they need to go potty, they want their mothers, and so forth.

I had a few thoughts. First, this is a very New York specific piece. Most districts do not, in fact, test kids for giftedness at age 4. Third grade is a far more usual time, because in education lore, the schools will have straightened out in any advantages or disadvantages that kids came in with by then. This seems strange to me (kids spend more time at home than at school), but that is the thinking.

Second, New York is strange in that there are very few chances to get in "the system" once your kid has started school. Private high schools want you to have gone to private elementary schools, and Hunter's schools go K-12. Most districts do not have nearly enough choices in schooling for any of this to matter.

But anyway, some more important observations: So IQ can move. That may matter if we're talking about dropping from 135 to 125, but the chances that a kid who has been tested multiple times at 150+ will drop down to, say, 110, are quite low. As one quoted expert, Samuel J. Meisels, put it in the piece, "Giftedness is a real thing, no question." That completely contradicts the cover line ("The Myth of the Gifted Child") and suggests that the problem is not that too few kids are being labeled gifted, it's that too many are, with a dividing line too close to the mean. Tell the parent of a 3-year-old who taught herself to read just because she finds books so fascinating that kids are all the same, intellectually, and may even out over time, and she'll probably laugh in your face.

If IQ moves, then test multiple times. Test for entrance to gifted programs every year or two -- and have kids test out too. I agree that there's no point in having only one extremely high stakes test. But that doesn't mean giftedness is a myth. If a kid has a growth spurt at age 15, he's more likely to make the basketball team in high school than if he has a growth spurt at age 18, or just stays pretty short. That may not be entirely fair, since playing a sport can teach great lessons for life and maybe help with college admissions. But we don't go apoplectic as a society about how unfair this is or, more ridiculously, try to claim that tall people don't exist.

My last point: why are these articles always illustrated with child models wearing nerdy looking glasses? When the New York Times magazine ran a cover story several years ago about the rise of the "gifted child industry" they did the same thing.


becca said...

You're right that this article is very NYC specific. But, that only makes the point that NYC is ridiculous in its use of the OLSAT for 4 year olds (not an IQ test by anyone's standard) to gain acceptance into a gifted and talented program starting in kindergarten.
One of the huge problems that the article doesn't address is that the use of the OLSAT, a multiple choice, 45 minute, bubble-filling exam, has resulted in girls filling the vast majority of G&T seats. Some coveted programs are almost 66% girls.
Everyone knows these G&T programs were instituted as a way to keep middle class white children in the public schools, or as a way to try and turn around schools. A better approach would be to enrich all the classes in K-2 and then test in 2nd or 3rd grade at which point kids could be grouped by ability, particularly in math and reading. Every child deserves an enriched and creative curriculum but we should also recognize that there are gifted kids out there who need more than the schools provide.

On another note, Hunter has another admissions point - 7th grade - and all students who score above a certain number on the statewide tests are invited to take the Hunter test in 6th grade.
And, at the Hunter kindergarten second round the Head of Admissions told all the parents that children shouldn't be tested until 2nd grade, but unfortunately this was just the way it was.
I hope she's wrong and that in NYC at least we can begin to figure out a better system.

Rosin said...

You write: So IQ can move. That may matter if we're talking about dropping from 135 to 125, but the chances that a kid who has been tested multiple times at 150+ will drop down to, say, 110, are quite low.

When I used to check the IQ scores of all my gifted-identified students -- I don't consistently do that anymore -- I found that 90% of them had IQs at 135 or lower. The 150 and even the 140 are definitely gifted...but they're also much less common.

That said, I agree with most of your comments, such as those about giftedness being real and the merit of re-testing. I have taught courses designed for the gifted (although non-identified kids are allowed to test in) at the HS level for eleven years now, and am certain that these courses and these kids match up in a productive way.

Yes, some gifted-identified kids simply aren't really gifted. It's a shame that some myth-breakers want to use that straw man to tear down really valuable gifted programs that benefit many children in powerful ways.

Christi said...

Kids do not spend more time at home than school - not waking hours anyway!

Anonymous said...

hmm, ideally I'd hate to leave it to testing at 7 or 8 years for gt programs. But maybe early gt should be formal testing, though. And over time more kids should be picked up. I've seen first hand what results with my children when they show early promise and the school can't react sufficiently. My son who was doing multiple digit addition and subtraction at 4 and taught himself multiplication and division at 5 then languished until gt math started in grade 4 only to be getting C's and some failing tests in 5th (then change to a school with more challenges brought him back up to the top of GT and a wondering of maybe he needs more advancement than taking algebra in 7th). What a waste of elementary school math! then a daughter whose reading level is 'above what her reading group is allowed to do' but idolizes her teacher and will only read what her teacher would read to the entire class (I'm working on earlier intervention with that one). No wonder IQ's drop over time.

The Princess Mom said...

@Becca, I wish you would elaborate on your comment that the OLSAT is "not an IQ test by anyone's standards" and that "everyone knows these G&T programs were instituted as a way to keep middle class white children in the public schools or as a way to try to turn around schools."

In Wisconsin, we don't hand out practice tests for kindergarteners to prep for it, like they do in NYC, but the OLSAT is used in our public school system to identify gifted children. (Not at age 4; more usually around age 8.) It's also one of the 200+ tests used as prior evidence of eligibility for Mensa. Clearly some people believe it's a legitimate IQ test.

Perhaps I'm a Pollyanna, but I'd like to believe that G&T programs exist because gifted kids need them.

pulnimar said...

"Test for entrance to gifted programs every year or two -- and have kids test out too."

Be aware that some kids may falter because of home issues (e.g. death in the family, divorce). Testing a kid "out" of a gifted program (or higher track) could be a double whammy in this case if they truly are need the differentiated curriculum to thrive.

posted: 9/12/2011