Nurture Shock: Chapter 5

{This is the fifth in a series. Click here to read more.}

Updated: Apparently, no one in the NYC school system has read Nurture Shock.

The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten

The shocker in this chapter? Intelligence (IQ) tests given to young children are wrong 73% of the time. Wrong in the sense that they do not predict future academic success (which children will be the best in reading, writing, and math in the later elementary school years.)

Children as young as 4 and 5 years old “sit” for entrance exams into independent schools and Gifted and Talented programs in public elementary schools across the country. The children’s scores are compared to others’ born in the same third of the year, so a child who is 4 years and 9 months old will be compared to other children the same age, within a range of 4 months. Based on these tests, which vary in what they examine, three million children – or 7% of public school students in America – are placed in Gifted and Talented (GT) programs, and another two million children are admitted to private schools.

There are many tests designed to measure intelligence and achievement. Some tests are nonverbal, like the Naglieri Nonverbal Abilities Test (the NNAT), which is a series of pictures of puzzles; the child has to fill in the “bubble” for the piece that completes the puzzle. Others, like the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) assess a child’s verbal, quantitative, and nonverbal reasoning ability. The Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI – pronounced “whip-see”) is frequently used by independent schools to screen candidates for admissions.

Intelligence tests differ from achievement tests because they assess children’s natural intellectual abilities, aptitudes that are innate, not learned. Achievement tests, such as the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT 10, the number 10 referring to the most recent edition), correlate with each year in school, K through 12. These tests measure academic knowledge gained in school (reading comprehension, mathematical problem-solving, science, social studies, etc.)

Both types of tests are designed to produce a “bell curve”, with items below, on, and above a child’s age and/or grade level. The average child scores between 90 and 110 on an IQ test (CogAT scores on a different scale), and in the 50th percentile on an achievement test like the Stanford. Admissions directors and GT program directors are looking for children who score above average, usually those with IQ scores  above 120 and scores in at least the 90th percentile on achievement tests. The threshold for admissions varies from school to school and district to district. (Bronson and Merryman argue that an IQ of 120 and scores in the 90th percentile in children as young as kindergarten are not predictive of later success in school.)

Now, I know a little bit about teaching children who are gifted and talented; I have been a certified GT teacher for 13 of my 14 years as a teacher. I have taught GT students in regular classroom settings, which also included students with Special Education needs, English as a Second Language learners, on-grade level students, and students at-risk because of low socioeconomic status (SES). I have pulled out small groups of GT children from their regular classrooms for enrichment and taught classes made up almost entirely of GT students. I currently teach at an independent school in Houston, and most of the kids I teach are considered above level in intelligence and achievement. I have administered the NNAT, the SAT, and the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills). Repeatedly. I also served on committees that analyzed applications to GT programs and made decisions about which children were accepted.

So. I know a little bit about assessing and instructing GT children. As a teacher who has invested considerable time and effort in this arena, the authors ruffled my professional feathers a bit at first.

After some  reflection, I realized that the authors do make a compelling case for the flaws in the GT/private school admissions process:

  • many schools/districts test children prior to or in kindergarten, and this test determines whether or not children qualify for Gifted and Talented programs or are admitted to private schools
  • by the third grade, only 27 out of 100 children identified as GT in kindergarten would still “deserve” the label (according to achievement tests)
  • some schools never test children again, so kids in the GT program are there for life, and kids who should be in the program (those 73 children who didn’t get spots in kindergarten) aren’t
  • the creators of IQ tests do not follow up to see if the tests accurately predicted who would be successful in school (adacemic researchers do, and they’ve found that IQ tests have only a 40% correlation with later achievement test results)
  • intelligence is fluid; young kids’ brains “just aren’t done yet” and you simply cannot determine who is gifted and talented for sure while their brains are still developing
  • IQ tests given in middle school are good indicators of academic success in high school

The authors cite the Houston Independent School District (in which I formerly taught) as an example of a district with poor GT admissions policies.

From HISD’s brochure for the magnet school application process:

HISD’s Vanguard Magnet programs serve students who have been identified as potentially gifted or talented in intellectual ability, creativity, or leadership. Vanguard Magnet offers a differentiated curriculum that is both accelerated and enriched. Students typically study interdisciplinary units that emphasize higher-level-thinking skills, problem-solving, and creativity. The Vanguard program requires testing.

{Note: the program serves children who are potentially gifted and talented. Also note that this is not the only GT program in HISD. There are eleven Vanguard Magnet schools, schools with a magnet program that specifically serves GT students using an advanced and enriched curriculum (other magnet programs might be for the fine arts, math and science, or technology). All other HISD schools have their own Vanguard Neighborhood programs. Do not ask me why HISD uses the term Vanguard simultaneously, yet separately to mean the same, yet different!}

HISD screens all kindegarten children for giftedness: all kindergartners take the NNAT and the SAT 10, and, based on their scores, are considered for admission to the district’s gifted program. This is without any formal application to the program by the parents (although parents can and do submit applications at this level). The district hoped that this would result in more nonwhite, low SES children  being admitted to the program. I do not know how many more nonwhite, low SES children have qualified for inclusion in GT classes since the district implemented this policy about five years ago.

Parents can submit applications for their children entering first through fifth grades, and, based on NNAT and SAT 10 scores, grades, classroom performance, and teacher recommendation, children can qualify for the GT program at any of these points in their elementary careers (the authors neglected to mention that.) The school’s GT committee uses a matrix to record points for each area; a 110 on the NNAT would receive 15 points, a math score in the 90th percentile on the SAT 10 would receive 10 points, and so on. A child must score a total of 62 points or above on the matrix in order to qualify for placement in a GT program.

Now, it is true that children are not “retested”, but they can be released from the program if they do not meet specified goals for achievement and behavior (which the authors also failed to mention.) It is also true that children are only screened as a grade level when they are in kindergarten, so, unless a parent fills out an application, some children might  miss out on the program if their teachers are not paying attention to how they are doing in class and recommend the children themselves.

The authors briefly refer to websites that pose the question “Is My Child Gifted?” and to checklists that districts use to ascertain giftedness, sounding (to me) dismissive about whether or not such checklists are helpful. See, here’s the thing: in my experience, we look at the whole child when determining whether or not he/she is gifted and talented. And we don’t stop at kindergarten. I have taught many second graders who didn’t qualify until they were in first grade, and I have had second graders in my class qualify for the following year.

It is helpful to distinguish between the merely bright and the intellectually gifted (see one such comparison). When I taught in HISD, I was one of several designated GT teachers on a second grade team. Most of my students (but not all) were identified as Gifted and Talented. In reality, I taught many “merely bright” children who were from good backgrounds and would be successful in their academic careers; but they weren’t gifted. I also taught children who were so intelligent I had to scramble to keep up with them. Either way, we are talking about children who differ in intelligence and/or ability from typically-developing children their age.

These are the children who need to be in GT programs. In fact, in Texas, the law requires that children identified as gifted and talented are taught by a certified GT teacher in a classroom with other GT students. GT kids’ minds are functioning cognitively above grade level; it is imperative that we provide them with opportunities for enrichment beyond the regular grade level curriculum. I also think that if an independent school offers an advanced curriculum and holds students to standards above the national average, it ought to be able to select students who will (most likely) be able to handle the demands of the curriculum.

I agree with the authors that intelligence isn’t fixed at age 5 and that we should make sure older children have access to gifted programs, too. I know that intelligence is not confined to verbal and nonverbal reasoning, and that many children who are talented in the fine arts or in sports do not do well on traditional measures of intelligence. I also believe that a child can be gifted in one area (say, reading several years above grade level) and not another. I once taught a child who qualified for the GT program based on his math scores. He also qualified for Special Education services because he was severely dyslexic (some educators call children like him “twice exceptional”). The quality of GT curricula and independent school educations vary widely, so there is no guarantee that a child will receive an exceptional education just because he/she is in an advanced program.

But I got the feeling that Bronson and Merryman were arguing against placing young children in gifted programs at all, that we should wait until children are 10 or 11, when their brains are more developed and IQ tests are more accurate, to identify the gifted and talented and provide them with enriched or advanced instruction. I think this is too late.

One of my second graders ended the year reading on a level comparable to that of a typical seventh or eighth grader. She excelled in all areas of the curriculum and is truly gifted. I have no idea what her IQ is, and my school does not begin standardized testing until the third grade, which I think is completely appropriate, but I do know how her mind works and  I would hate to think of her being in a classroom that was not academically challenging. She deserves an appropriate education just as much as a student with special needs, a child at-risk for failure, or a child with an average IQ does. And in her case, an appropriate education is in a classroom with other gifted students, taught by a certified gifted and talented teacher.

2 thoughts on “Nurture Shock: Chapter 5

  1. Didn’t know you were doing this…must read all the entries….”merely bright”…c’mon Kel…they’re all bright.
    Here’s my main question…why did they walk away from rank ordering students based upon the matrix.. They go to the trouble of testing all entering K and 1st grade…only to use those scores on 7%. And, then the rest of them are in the 52 card pick-up..where the table “leaders” help their friends. I do know that will work later in life. I tutored the Qtr bk at my high school in Algebra..But, in K-5 they need to get their foundation work down…not helping another student stay focused while the teacher is actually teaching.
    my 2 cents..

  2. Well, each school does it differently, I suppose. There is some “wiggle room” in the scoring system, where kids with scores below 62 can be in a GT class if they have high enough scores on certain parts of the matrix (I would have to go back to the HISD website to get the specifics.) Each school will probably do it a little differently, though. I don’t know about the rank ordering.

    At my former school, for instance, it was common for parents to create a big stink and even go to someone higher-up in the district to get their children placed in GT classes even though they didn’t qualify – by a MILE.

    And, of course, there shouldn’t ever be a situation in which a child’s main job in the classroom is to help his/her peers. There will be opportunities for cooperative learning, partner work, etc., but when one child is put in the position of being the helper all the time, that doesn’t work for anyone!

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