The Illusion of the ‘Gifted’ Child

Why our policies for good students really aren't that smart

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When news broke late last week that behemoth education company Pearson had bungled the scoring of standardized tests used for admissions to gifted education programs in New York City, it united Gotham’s quarreling education community — everyone was outraged. Parents, teachers and city officials all had good reason to be, as the scoring errors would have denied admission to 2,700 students who qualified. But the incident also highlighted the arbitrary nature of how we decide which students are so superior academically that they are essentially funneled into an elite group of schools with a specialized, advanced curriculum.

For starters, what exactly makes a child “gifted”? In New York City, like many school districts, giftedness is decided by a standardized test that measures verbal and nonverbal facility. Score at the 90th percentile and you make the cut for some programs, but at the 97th percentile students become eligible for the highly competitive citywide options for gifted students. The problem isn’t the test, per se, it’s the false precision that comes with it. There is no consistent standard — some experts say the top 10%, some say the top few percent (in which case, most of the children whose parents think they are gifted are merely talented). In the case of New York City, does anyone seriously think that a student at the 96th percentile (or the 89th for that matter) might not benefit from gifted education programs, as well? Of course not. It’s the scarcity of seats, rather than any rigorous definition of merit that is driving these distinctions.

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Then there are the limits of standardized testing. We certainly should support students with high academic potential, but it’s hardly the only measure of human potential. Some school districts identify students with talents in the visual and performing arts, for instance, for various gifted programs. But in general, the measure for defining giftedness is narrow — and can be manipulated by access to test-prep programs.

Which is one example of why class and race also matter. Affluent parents have resources to help their children do better on tests. Low-income and minority students are substantially underrepresented in gifted programs. The more general problems of low school quality for poor and minority students likewise matter. A 2007 report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation found that 3.4 million high-performing low-income students are being overlooked by today’s policies. Not as exciting as occupying a park, but these are the real drivers of America’s lack of social mobility.

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So what can policymakers and school districts do to create better policies for gifted students? Here are three ideas:

1. Increase the options. In New York City and elsewhere, gifted programs often function as a school-choice strategy for making public schools more attractive. But demand clearly overwhelms supply. Students with different kinds of giftedness should be able to find schools that work for them, and giving parents more options does a lot more to get them invested in public education than an annual fight over a limited number of seats in coveted programs.

2. Level the playing field. Providing extra support for students from diverse backgrounds is essential. Programs aimed at students by race or income are suspect in today’s politics, but a high bar is only meaningful if all students have the chance to meet it.

3. Just make our schools better. Efforts to improve the quality of curriculum and instruction are good for everyone. So is expanding access to pre-K education. It’s no secret that too many American students aren’t challenged in school. While programs for truly exceptional students have a place, all kids would benefit from more enriching and rigorous educational experiences and more would be seen as “gifted” with a better educational experience at their back.

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