The very word "gifted" is inherently problematic and the title "re-gifted" is something no self-respecting gift would probably want for itself.
The label "gifted," however, is one that few parents would reject. Even parents who deny the existence of "giftedness" might find it difficult to pull their child from such a program in protest.
In New York, many parents are spending thousands of dollars to improve their children's chances of being labeled as such, to improve the likelihood they will qualify for gifted programs and competitive-application private schools.
Such placement, tracking, and labeling is deeply problematic. It implies that those who do not qualify for these specialized school services are not gifted, or are somehow less-so than those who do.
Did I mention the children I referred to in that second paragraph are 2 years old?
Welcome to the world of testing gone wild.
This issue of giftedness is deeply personal for nearly everyone who discusses it. People have strong opinions about it. It is one of the most political issues in American education outside the trinity of textbook adoption, evolution, and prayer in schools. Some have argued giftedness is a measurable thing, a part of a person, as much a part of those who possess it as are their eyes or elbow, standardized achievement and aptitude tests just happening to be our best tools for measuring it. Others claim that giftedness doesn't even exist; that the perception of giftedness is a testing artifact intentionally designed to perpetuate societal inequities. Personally, I can see some truth in both these positions.
Francis Galton, in one of the earliest IQ tests, included grip strength and head circumference as measurements of intelligence, which he was convinced was inherited. In 1884 he set up a booth at the International Health Exhibition in London and charged visitors 3 pence each to literally have their heads measured. That several prominent scientists and celebrities agreed to do so gave his assumptions the weight of widespread acceptance. Every IQ test since has been built on the assumption that real world circumstances do not impact test scores enough to make a difference in their outcomes. Anna Commitante, current director of NYC's gifted programs, is on record stating, "I don't know how prepping could help."
Yet, testing as actually applied in educational settings was pioneered by Alfred Binet, who was charged with the task of developing a way to identify students who would benefit from extra help in classrooms in which they were struggling. His tests asked students to use vocabulary words in a sentence, to report which of two items was heavier, and to resist suggestion (Binet would lay out several common items and ask the student, "Which is the nitchevo?" The correct answer would be, "there is no such thing" thus resisting the suggestion that one was present, very few gave the correct answer, most would just pick an item in front of them). He also asked students, "What is a house? What is a horse? What is a fork?"
So do the tests used today. Imagine a test prep book for 3 year olds that included vocabulary lists of words and pictures likely to appear on a NYC gifted placement achievement test. It is Ms. Commitante's position that such a book confers no measurable advantage to those children whose parents purchase them. One such book, by the way, is available here for $500 each. Individual tutoring at the same company is available for $450 an hour. People have also reported finding copies of the actual tests online for up to $3,000. Considering tuition at competitive private preschools in New York can run $25,000 to $30,000 (pdf, page 4) a year, such expenditures are a fraction of a family's potential outlay.
That's what made this quote interesting, in its apparent naivete:
[After discovering parents had been purchasing copies of the test to use in prepping their children] Elizabeth Allen, the director of research and development of Pro Ed Inc., which only recently acquired the rights to the Stanford-Binet..."When I heard, I was like, 'You're kidding me! Some parent paid a thousand dollars so they could get their kid into a gifted program? Wow.'"
In NYC, there are a variety of different tests. The OLSAT, the Bracken, the WPPSI, andStanford-Binet are all used for different schools, with NYC public schools using a combination of two of these (the OLSAT and Bracken). Most private schools devise their own assessments, sometimes based on one or more of these.
The Bracken tests a child's familiarity with colors, shapes, letters, and numbers. (The average New York child can't count to 40 until sometime after their 5th birthday.) Some of the tests include replicating printed shapes using colored blocks (like those in PlaySkool kits). Others require the child to identify abstract concepts in grouped objects, like on the old (but not so old!) Pyramid tv gameshow (i.e. umbrella, jar, door, and cabinet = things that open).
Test Results in NYC
2007: The city switches from a system relying on teacher observation and recommendation (too subjective) to a more "objective" system using the OLSAT and Bracken tests. 4 year olds must score in the 95th percentile, on national norms, to be considered for gifted placement in kindergarten. The 3 most competitive schools have cut-scores of the 97th percentile. This is the only time that students are considered for gifted placement. There is no 'taking the test next year.' The stated rationale is to remove teacher subjectivity from the process in order to include more low-SES and racial minority students in gifted enrollments.
2008: The cut-score is lowered to the 90th percentile. This makes the difference between 1,637 and 2,999 students being invited into the city's gifted kindergartens. Children are not given the tests unless their parents request it, and improved community outreach increases the number of requests from 13,000 the year before to more than 50,000 in 2008.
Even though the city cited equity as a motivating cause for increased testing as a criterion for placement, White students received more gifted slots than the year before. 17% of NYC kindergartners and 1st graders are White; in 2007 33% of NYC gifted entrants were White, in 2008 48% were White. Critics who claim the entire policy is designed not to find gifted students but to prevent White flight by giving high-income families a reason to stay in the public schools are supported by this kind of data. Proportions of Asian students entering gifted programs also increased, while those of Black and Hispanic students decreased.
NYC students (at these grade levels) are 41% Hispanic, but only 9% of those entering gifted programs are. Those numbers for Black students are 27% of the total population, 13% of the gifted population. In previous years, with teacher identification playing a role, 31% of the gifted entrants were Black.
2009: No major adjustments to the gifted identification and enrollment policies have been announced. City and school officials report that more students have been screened (taken the tests) each year they have been offered, increasing the opportunity for more students to be selected for the gifted programs.
- There is no such thing as giftedness. Stop testing. Stop tracked placements. Return all these students to their otherwise "home" schools and classrooms. Train teachers to differentiate instruction so that each student, whatever their level of ability or processing speed, is appropriately challenged in each classroom. Consequences: some students will flounder and be demotivated, and underperform as a result.
- There is such a thing as giftedness. But, using a single test score to measure/determine it is flawed. Use a multiple criteria approach, including test scores, but also teacher recommendations (once teachers are better trained in identifying gifted children). Include creativity, social interaction, motivation, and other not-easily tested considerations to the process. Consequences: more subjectivity, much more expensive.
- Use a different kind of assessment altogether, such as Walter Mischel's Marshmallow Test. (Except for it being possible to prep for this, even more than for standardized academic tests, I really, really like this idea.) Consequences: in my opinion, nothing but upside, scares policymakers and administrators, though, for being so unorthodox and untraditional.
- Keep doing what we're doing, but change two things. One: test children later, around age 7, when IQs are most stable, and Two: test more than once, over a one or two year time span. Consequences: delays beginning of services and is much more expensive.
Lewis Terman, who studied more than 1,500 very-high IQ children for nearly 70 years (his study continues today) tested and missed two Nobel Prize winners and several world-class musicians (including Isaac Stern). Very few of his subjects achieved world-class status as influential or domain-defining professionals. One biographer of Terman claimed the best his study discovered was the creator of I Love Lucy (no, it was not Lucy).
IQ scores are now known to fluctuate up to 10 points between ages 6 and 18, with the time of greatest instability being 6. That means a difference between 125 (above average) and 135 (well into the gifted range for most school districts). That also means that only 25% of NYC students who qualify for gifted services at age 4 would do so at age 18.
It turns out that IQ scores are much, much better predictors of family income level and number of books in the home than they are of school performance until at least age 8.
Yet, having written all of this, and knowing more criticisms of this paradigm than I've bothered to include here, I still strongly feel that there are some students for whom even the best differentiated classroom would not provide an appropriate and growth-oriented experience. There are students who simply learn differently (faster, more deeply, more emotionally) from others, and for whom a placement in a mixed environment will result in a dumbing-down of their natural curiosity and task-commitment. Unfortunately, not all students value inquisitiveness and reading and tolerance for ambiguity and academic achievement, and exert direct social pressure on those who do to change their ways. "Anti-elitist" peer pressure even in 1st grade can change the course of a precocious child's academic career. I've seen it happen. And what of the profoundly gifted? What of those who are so far advanced that any traditional school experience is tortuous? I've seen that happen, too. The assumption that all students will benefit from what professional educators of the gifted do with identified gifted students is also problematic. Much of what benefits gifted students the most is acceleration, moving more quickly through material, or skipping material other students struggle with altogether. Expecting teachers to accommodate and support that kind of learning in classrooms where most of the students are below grade level is asking a lot. Especially in a system that only rewards or recognizes teachers and schools that get students to the minimum, not those that guide students to their fullest potential.
There is both inherited merit, conferred by birth through money and parental social status, and there is inherent merit. Testing claims to find inherent merit, but it really finds inherited merit. Inherent merit looks different in different places and times, in different contexts. The only way for the tests to be valid is if every child took them with the same experiences, the same exposure to toys and books, the same socioeconomic status. And that may never happen.
There are no easy answers, but I hope to have presented a little bit of the complicated questions and evidence as close to coherently as possible. Much of the data, quotes, and supporting material in the diary come from this article in New York Magazine, and this reporter for the New York Times. The New York Mag. article is excellent, especially the reader comments attached to the article. If you have an interest in this kind of thing, I highly recommend it.
- An interesting blurb about President Obama's messaging on health care from an article in the Finanical Times this week. Whether you agree or disagree (and I do both, I believe, regarding different parts of the quote), it did remind me of some recent Tuesdays past, and the importance of academics to be careful about what they say to journalists:
“Historians will puzzle over the fact that Barack Obama, the best communicator of his generation, totally lost control of the narrative in his first year in office and allowed people to view something they had voted for as something they suddenly didn’t want,” says Jim Morone, America’s leading political scientist on healthcare reform. “Communication was the one thing everyone thought Obama would be able to master.”
- Saw Inglourious Basterds 2 nights ago. Very Tarantinoesque, and I enjoyed the final reel, but the basement-bar scene just went on too long. I think I might only recommend it to my Tarantino-fan friends, though. And they've already seen it. Reservoir Dogs still rules Quentin's roost for me.
- NYT article on some amazing experiments done on embodied cognition and how certain triggers unconsciously influence people's opinions and perceptions. If you're drinking hot coffee instead of a cold soda, you may really want to read this!
- As for Harold Ford, Jr. and Chuck Schumer, I discovered thisyesterday:
“A lot of what’s fueling the Ford thing is Chuck’s donors, who are furious at him,” a well-connected political consultant says. “They feel he’s walked away from them. He’s become a more partisan Democratic figure than he ever was. In part, it’s a deliberate decision he made to get a bigger profile in Washington, to position himself to be the majority leader if Harry Reid loses in November. But it’s come with some cost in New York.”
I suspect that if Schumer becomes Senate majority leader, his corporate donors will still take his calls.
- Statistics on marriage from the Student Senate board in the Teachers College basement (er, sub-level 1) in honor of Valentine's Day:
- 2.2 million Americans get married each year, with an average of 5,786 weddings a day.
- 25.5 is the average age of a woman's first marriage.
- 27.5 is the average for men.
- First marriages ending in divorce arrive at that destination, on average, after 8 years.
- There are 902 chocolate-making factories in the US.
What Did You Learn This Week?