Testing, Testing: Do Gifted Kids Deserve Special Treatment?S

Jennifer Senior's New York Magazine piece on elementary school admissions reveals a disturbing world in which parents pay thousands of dollars to prep their four-year-olds for baby SATs. But it ignores one obvious question: should kids be tested at all?

According to Senior, "nearly every selective elementary school in [New York], whether it's public or private, requires standardized exams for kindergarten admission, some giving them so much weight they won't even consider applicants who score below the top 3 percent." The same is true in some other major cities (many of the magnet schools of Los Angeles, I know from experience, require an IQ test), and a selective elementary school can lead to a selective high school, which in turn gives kids a big leg up for college. Senior calls this "a successful glide path for life," and she gives a fascinating, if partial, explanation of why the whole system is so fucked up. For starters, four-year-olds are crappy test-takers and their scores on standardized tests aren't particularly good predictor of future success. Senior writes,

In 2006, David Lohman, a psychologist at the University of Iowa, co-authored a paper called "Gifted Today but Not Tomorrow?" in the Journal for the Education of the Gifted, demonstrating just how labile "giftedness" is. It notes that only 45 percent of the kids who scored 130 or above on the Stanford-Binet would do so on another, similar IQ test at the same point in time. Combine this with the instability of 4-year-old IQs, and it becomes pretty clear that judgments about giftedness should be an ongoing affair, rather than a fateful determination made at one arbitrary moment in time. I wrote to Lohman and asked what percentage of 4-year-olds who scored 130 or above would do so again as 17-year-olds. He answered with a careful regression analysis: about 25 percent.

Not only are standardized tests for little kids inaccurate — they're also, like SATs, possible to game. Tutors, prep books, and even actual copies of the standardized tests schools use are available to parents for exorbitant fees: an ad on UrbanBaby.com offered one set of tests for $3,000, "no questions asked." Of course, all this is more accessible to parents with money, meaning that the kids who get into New York's most selective elementary schools are likely to come from financially stable homes. In fact, Senior argues, this is true regardless of prep work — kids whose parents are financially secure just tend to do better on the tests. She quotes Nicholas Lemann, author of a history of the SAT:

People have the idea that with these tests you can cancel out socioeconomic background and get to some real thing in the kid. That's a chimera. If you're a 4-year-old performing well on these tests, it's either because you have fabulous genetic material or because you have cultural advantages. But either way, the point is: You're doing better because of your parents.

In all her discussion of the injustice and inaccuracy of early childhood standardized testing, however, Senior doesn't really discuss the troubling implications of the "glide path" itself. She offers, somewhat wryly, an alternative assessment strategy involving marshmallows and self-discipline, but why should kids be assessed at all? Why should some, based on intelligence or economic background or test-taking skills or really any quality, be given an easy road to a good college while others have to struggle? Senior quotes Steve Nelson, head of New York's Calhoun School, ostensibly as a contrast to misguided, test-obsessed administrators:

I want a school full of kids who daydream. I want kids who are occasionally impulsive. I want kids who are fun to be with. I want kids who don't want to answer the questions on those tests in the way the adult wants them to be answered, because that kid is already seeing the world differently. In fact, I want kids who are cynical enough at age 4 to know that there's really something wrong with someone asking them these things and think, ‘I'm going to screw with them in the process!'

Nelson's desire to fill his school with "kids who are fun to be with" is understandable, and since Calhoun is small and private, it's not going to stop being selective anytime soon. Still, I found Nelson's breakdown of the exact kind of specialness he wanted in his students to be slightly creepy. Is there really a virtue in marking out children whom adults perceive to be exceptional in some way, and then giving them lots of advantages over others? Of course, this is how colleges operate, but it least they deal with seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds who have some degree of autonomy. The question that Senior's whole article really raises is one that's been asked before, but deserves revisiting: should we be giving gifted kids special treatment?

As someone who attended gifted programs in the LA public schools from first through 12th grade, I have conflicted feelings about this. On the one hand, I treasure the friends I made in school, and many of us believed at the time that we would have been mocked mercilessly without the haven of the gifted classes. Our parents were more taken with the idea that gifted children needed extra attention in order to reach their potential, that our intellectual reserves would go untapped unless given special fostering. I no longer know if either of these is true. I sometimes think that the mockery explanation is a species of nerd self-congratulation, the kind of nobody-understands-me rhetoric that I find myself falling into frequently but try to fight against. And, sadly, I got made fun of plenty in gifted programs — and not for being smart. As to whether we needed special attention, I do think we benefited from it — or at least, from being thrown together with a whole lot of other kids who were highly motivated and whose parents expected them to go to college. But a kid doesn't have to have a certain IQ to benefit from a motivated peer group — and in fact, the non-"gifted" kids at my school might have done better if the "gifted" kids had been evenly distributed through their classes. Beyond that, we had access to AP courses that other kids couldn't necessarily take, and sometimes more highly qualified teachers, and many of us did indeed go on to top-flight colleges — but it's hard to tell if we "realized our potential" or if any kid, given a certain baseline of parental involvement and a bunch of encouragement and opportunity, has the potential to do just as well as we did. I tend to believe the latter.

Senior quotes a parent who explains, "You want what's best for your kid," and perhaps gifted education survives in part because parents with means want their children to receive not just a good, but a stellar education. You can't exactly fault them, especially since many city schools aren't even close to good. But maybe this is the real problem — if education in America weren't in such a sorry state, parents might not feel the need to scrabble so hard for the very top spots. There will always be some parents who want to set their kindergartners on a path for Harvard, but if every public school offered kids a reasonable opportunity for learning and success, then maybe we could get rid of the mentality that opportunity is something to be rationed. Of course, the flight of middle-class parents from public schools is one reason these schools suffer, and the whole thing is really a feedback loop in which resources are continually sucked away from kids without the benefit of economic stability or involved moms and dads. But instead of simply accepting an increasingly stratified society, we might do well to question this stratification — starting with the "assessment" of four-year-olds.

The Junior Meritocracy [New York Magazine]