The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten Ⅲ- Woodmam

Consider South Carolina.

A few years ago, the state hired the College of William & Mary’s Center for Gifted Education to evaluate its gifted screening. South Carolina was concerned that minorities were underrepresented in the gifted programs, but—along the way—there turned out to be an even more complex problem.

Despite revamping the admissions process to increase minority participation, the program remained disproportionately white (86%). But even more disturbing was the number of kids in the gifted program—regardless their race—who were weren’t functioning as gifted at all.

When William & Mary looked at the gifted kids’ achievement test scores for 2002 in third, fourth, and fifth grade, the results were disastrous. In math, 12% of the gifted kids scored as having only a “basic” ability level. Another 30% were merely “proficient.” In English, the numbers were far worse. You’d expect the researchers would have concluded that those children should be moved into a normal classroom, but instead William & Mary recommended the state come up with gifted interventions—basically, special programs for the kids who were remedial-yet-gifted, an oxymoronic concept if there ever was one.

We called the twenty largest public school districts in America to learn what gifted education programs they offer. Here are those twenty largest:

New York City

Los Angeles Unified

City of Chicago

Dade County (Miami)

Clark County (Las Vegas)

Broward County (Fort Lauderdale)

Houston ISD

Hillsborough County (Tampa)

Philadelphia City

Hawaii Dept. of Education

Palm Beach County

Orange County (Orlando)

Fairfax County (VA)

Dallas ISD

Detroit City

Montgomery County (MD)

Prince George’s County (MD)

Gwinnett County (GA)

San Diego Unified

Duval County (Jacksonville)

All twenty had some sort of gifted program. Twelve of those districts begin their program in kindergarten. Not one district waits until third grade to screen the children—by the end of second grade, all twenty districts have anointed children as exceptional.

On paper, this flies in the face of the developmental science. “I don’t have the perfect answer,” said Dr. Lauri Kirsch, Supervisor of the Gifted Program at Hillsborough County School District in Tampa, Florida. “I just keep my eyes open, looking for kids. We create opportunities for kids to engage and excel. We want to give the children time to develop their giftedness.”

When talking to these schools, I realized it was unfair to judge the programs solely on the basis of what age they tested the kids; it was also important to consider what the stakes were—whether the gifted program was radically better than regular classes, or only a modest supplement to regular classes. Several of those districts, like Dallas, identify the kids as early as kindergarten, but they don’t make a fateful structural decision. The children identified as gifted remain in their classrooms, and once a week get to slip out and attend a two-hour enhanced class just for the gifted. That’s all they get, which is almost surely not enough. It’s hard to argue that Dallas is better than Detroit, which makes a fateful decision prior to kindergarten, but the kids who are identified as gifted get something far better—they’re allowed to attend a full-time special academy.

In applying the science to the reality, the problem doesn’t seem to lie with the age of initial screening. Even in kindergarten, a few children are clearly and indisputably advanced. Instead, what stands out as problems are: the districts who don’t give late-blooming children additional chances to test in, and the lack of objective retesting to ensure the kids who got in young really belong there.

Of the top twenty school districts, not one requires children to score high on an achievement test or IQ test in later years to stay in the program. Children can stay in the gifted class as long as they aren’t falling too far behind. Kicking kids out is not what districts prioritize—it’s getting them in.

Many of the districts are still laboring under the premise that intelligence is innate and stable. By this ancient logic, retesting is not necessary, because an IQ score is presumed valid for life. The lack of reassessment is kindhearted but a double standard: the districts believe firmly in using IQ cutoffs for initial admission, but they think later tests aren’t necessary.

Back in South Carolina, they’ve actually instituted new rules to protect low-performing kids in the gifted classes. First, students cannot be removed from the program only for falling behind in class—something else has to be going on for a kid to get kicked out. Second, if a child is moved into regular classes for the rest of a year, they are automatically allowed back into the gifted program at the beginning of the next year—without any retesting.

The Palmetto State isn’t the only one that believes it is taboo to expect gifted kids to prove their merit. In Florida, a 2007 bill to reform state gifted education couldn’t make it out of committee until a provision demanding retesting every three years was struck from the plan.

Once again, the test authors dispute these practices—rooted in a belief that if you’re ever gifted, you’re gifted for life. Explains CogAT co-author Dr. Lohman, “The classic model of giftedness—that it is something fixed—is something we’ve been trying to get over for some time, without much success.”

Of all the districts we surveyed, none flouted the science like New York City. A single test prior to kindergarten determines entrance. Meanwhile, those who are admitted are never retested—children stay through fifth or eighth grade, depending on the school. As of 2008, the New York Department of Education had changed the tests it uses four times in four years, unable to get the results it wanted. In 2007, a Chancellor’s report noted that too few kids qualified at the 90th percentile cutoff, so the classes were filled with regular students—42% of the places for gifted kids were filled by children who tested under the 80th percentile. Many complained the program had been watered down. Meanwhile, the district’s web site warned older applicants that they would be put on wait lists in case spots became available—which the district warned would be very rare—even in fourth and fifth grade.

Private independent schools don’t really have another option—almost by definition, they have to screen kids before kindergarten. But it should be recognized how fallible the screening process is—how many great kids it misses. Admission directors might already warn parents, “The admission process is more of an art than a science,” but the science argues it’s not 60% art, it’s 60% random.

In some cities, elite feeder preschools are now using intelligence testing too. And they’re not ashamed of it either: in the Seattle region, one preschool’s web site boasts of being the only preschool in the state that requires IQ testing for admittance—some kids are tested at 27 months. In Detroit, one preschool waits until the kids are all of 30 months.
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