The Myth of Testing for Giftedness

May 14, 2010

By Amy Hatch

Kim Moldofsky is a petite woman, and her whip-thin body buzzes with energy. Her short, black hair is cut into a chin-length bob, and she smiles frequently when chatting with friends.

The Chicago-area mom of two tween boys brought that same sense of intensity to her quest to find the best possible school for her sons, both of whom are gifted.

“My older son was tested — given both IQ and achievement tests — by his public school when he was in kindergarten,” Moldofsky recalls. “It was an unprecedented move at the time. We later pursued private testing … which he had as a first-grader.”

The kind of testing Moldofsky calls “unprecedented” is decidedly no longer so. In fact, some parents are going so far as to engage their preschoolers in the kind of intense preparation once reserved for high-school students taking college entrance exams.

Private firms such as Aristotle’s Circle, a New York City outfit that aims to “carefully match parents to experts with current insight and inside knowledge of admissions, education and child development,” cater to parents anxious to get the best possible education for their child — gifted or otherwise.

Supply and Demand
Simple economics are driving the use of assessment tests to evaluate younger and younger children for specialized programs and elite private schools in cities where the public system is floundering. So says Dr. Gillian Dowley McNamee, professor of child development and director of teacher education at Erikson Institute, a graduate school of child development in Chicago.

“There are so few good programs, and there is a lot of competition,” she tells ParentDish.

The schools need a way to sort children who apply, but testing kids as young as age 4 for gifted, accelerated or magnet programs is a misguided way to do so, she says.

“The whole enterprise of testing kids under the age of 8 is riddled with problems,” McNamee says. “They are so volatile (intellectually) that you can’t reliably identify their potential.”

Not only is the testing misguided, she asserts, it can be potentially harmful. Children who do well on an assessment test, such as the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test or the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI-III), may, in fact, not perform as well in school as their test scores predict. In that case, McNamee says, parents — and schools — run the risk of setting these students up for an academic lifetime of failure and frustration.

Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington, D.C.-based educational consultant and author of “College Admissions Together: It Takes A Family,” says he sees families at the end of their journey, when the child is preparing for college. However, he finds that the academic philosophy of his clients has been cemented well before they arrive on his doorstep.

Goodman specializes in Ivy League placements, and says all the parents he sees want their children to be happy. What varies, he tells ParentDish, are their definitions of happiness.

“Is happiness defined as a ticket to Harvard or Cornell?” he says. “Or is happiness defined as something like sitting with your family and being happy, even if your child didn’t learn something specific that day?”

McNamee says there has been a definite cultural shift in the way parents approach the education of their children. The world economy and a preoccupation with studying for the “A,” contribute to the frenzy for assessment through testing alone. It satisfies the craving for a simple yes-or-no answer to the very complicated question of a child’s potential for success.

New Standards
Up until very recently, it was considered developmentally appropriate to begin serious reading instruction in the second grade. Now, however, kindergartners who once went to school to learn their ABCs are way behind if they aren’t already reading simple words when the school year begins. Even a child’s pencil grip can be enough to force parents into decision-making mode: Will she be able to work with her peers or will her pencil grip frustrate her and put her at risk of failing?

And for that matter, can you fail kindergarten?

Not everyone agrees that making kindergarten into the new first grade is an appropriate response. Early learners need a certain level of creative play in their school day, according to the Alliance for Childhood. An organization comprised of childhood development and educational experts, the group’s March 2009 publication, “Crisis in the Kindergarten: A New Report on the Disappearance of Play,” lays out the dangers of eliminating play in early elementary school.

The report asserts that the current state of early education is precarious, indeed: “Kindergartners are now under great pressure to meet inappropriate expectations, including academic standards that until recently were reserved for ?rst grade. At the same time, they are being denied the bene?ts of play — a major stress reliever.”

How Did This Happen?
Those on the anti-testing bandwagon say school should not just be about filling a vessel with knowledge and then testing that vessel’s integrity in order to achieve some kind of meritocracy. The knowledge must be contextual, it must be imparted in an environment of peers.

“The question needs to be, how do we use our talents and gifts to benefit the greater group?” McNamee says. “That is what gets missed when you look at ‘giftedness.’ And let’s be honest — we’re only going to get a Mozart once every 300 years.”

McNamee pins part of the blame on the now-notorious federal policy of “No Child Left Behind,” which, she says, took a perfectly good instrument — the standardized test — and made it the only tool in a teacher’s assessment toolbox.

“What we know about development has not changed in at least 15 years,” she says. “And I do think it is unfortunate, what happened under ‘No Child Left Behind.’ It was a great idea to make sure no one was left behind, but what we did was attach funding decisions to test results, and this is how we came to this idea of a one-shot test as the decision maker.”

She uses a medical metaphor, comparing the assessment test to aspirin. Both have their place, but neither one can be used as a universal panacea.

“No Utopia”
Eager to provide opportunities for their kids, parents are simply playing the game as the rules dictate. Kim Moldofsky’s boys, now 11 and 9, are classified as highly gifted and consistently test above their grade levels without any kind of pushing or prodding from their parents, though she still has moments of doubt.

“My approach to educating my highly-gifted boys?” Moldofsky asks. “It often feels all wrong. My older boy has been to three schools so far, and unlike Goldilocks for whom the third time was a charm, nothing has the right fit. We’re not going to pursue a fourth because he’s slow to transition and, by now, I’ve learned enough to know there is no Utopia.”

That, right there, might just be the rub. There is no perfect school, no ideal teacher — and no flawless instrument with which to predict a child’s future.

If we keep obsessing about performance and measurement, treating kindergarten like academic boot camp, we risk harming the very children we’re trying so hard to protect, McNamee says.

“We are pulling the trigger on our own children, right in front of our own eyes,” she says.

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