A GIFT FOR THE RICH
January 1, 1970In Boise, Idaho, where I live, school officials have forged ahead with their plan to create an island of separation between so-called “gifted” children and their merely ordinary peers -- using intelligence tests as the primary screening device.
Unfortunately, officials failed to think carefully about the likely ramifications of such a scheme.
In our test-obsessed culture, it might sound reasonable to many parents and educators to screen students for a gifted school based on their performance on IQ tests. Indeed, we are often awed by people who test off the charts on standardized tests, whether it’s the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the SAT’s for college admission. I encountered one Boise parent, for instance, whose 7th grade son scored in the 99th percentile on a standardized achievement test but whose actual school work, according to Mom, was rather shoddy, at best. “Teachers were in awe of those test scores,” the mom told me. “They didn’t see him. They saw him as his test scores.”
Despite the widespread belief that even the most complex human traits and activities can be neatly summed up and valued by a single number, whether it’s achievement tests to measure the quality of our schools, SAT’s to measure one’s merit for selection to an elite university, or stock prices to indicate the value of a puffed up company like Enron, the numbers are far from the absolute measures of institutional value or individual merit that we like to think. Any plan that would designate gifted children according to results of IQ tests is riddled with a number of troubling problems.
First is the question of what IQ tests really measure. Most parents and even many teachers assume that intelligence tests measure something akin to general cognitive ability. In fact, after more than 100 years since the first IQ tests were developed in Europe, many experts continue to wrangle over the very definition of human intelligence and how to measure it.
Rather than general cognitive prowess, it’s far more likely that IQ tests measure something considerably more specialized and narrow, what New Zealand intelligence researcher James Flynn has described as merely a “weak correlate” of intelligence, or “abstract problem solving ability.” IQ tests are highly abstract exercises dominated by test items that tap verbal acuity. The tests are only remotely connected to problem solving in the real world, which requires creative, practical and a host of other skills and abilities that are equally important aspects of human intelligence that most IQ tests simply don’t account for. Indeed, in the way that leading commercial IQ tests are constructed and scored, test takers are rewarded handsomely for speedy test performance, while children who may be more hesitant or careful in solving problems are severely penalized by such tests.
As Boise school officials describe the new school, it comes off as genuinely egalitarian and meritocratic -- fair to all comers so long as they test at the near genius level. The hidden truth, however, is that any plan to restrict entry to a public school on the basis of IQ scores alone embodies the exact opposite of fairness.
One unassailable fact throughout the history of IQ testing, going back to Alfred Binet’s early IQ tests for school children in France in the early 1900s, is that children from well-to-do and highly educated parents tend to outperform by wide margins children from poor and modest economic backgrounds. And it’s still true, owing to the way IQ tests are constructed and scored. With their heavy reliance on verbal reasoning, IQ tests for young children reward skills that are inculcated at young ages in households with highly educated parents. The school-like environments those parents often create at home put their children ahead of the game from the first day of kindergarten, a leg up that’s sustained throughout school.
Indeed, the dirty little secret of “gifted” programs and schools across the United States, particularly taxpayer supported ones, is that their decks are heavily stacked in favor of well educated elites. Consider Hunter College Elementary in New York City. Although a public school, theoretically open to all residents of Manhattan, Hunter is in fact a haven for the young children of Manhattan’s intellectual elite, primarily because of the school’s heavy reliance on IQ testing for entry. Once children get into Hunter (which boasts a selection rate that beats most Ivy League colleges), they are treated to a veritable scholastic wonderland, a school known for its incredibly rich, creative and varied approaches to learning.
I’m quite sure Boise school officials would hope to create the same wonderful learning environment for its so-designated gifted children. I’m reminded of public schools in Teaneck, New Jersey, which tracked children into slower and accelerated academic paths depending upon a child’s performance on standardized tests. For the “gifted” ones, officials created a special place indeed for creative and enriched learning. But the unlucky children who tested into the slower tracks -- primarily poor and black or Hispanic -- encountered mindless drills and brain numbing memorization (activities, by the way, all aimed at the sole purpose of boosting scores on state achievement tests.)
One fifth grade girl, Jessica, saw the inequities and raised the issue with William Crain, then a member of the Teaneck school board, when she saw him in a local coffee shop. Jessica told Crain, “I don’t think the gifted and talented classes are fair. The kids in the gifted classes get to leave the (regular) class and go off and do interesting things, and all the kids that get left behind don’t think they’re as smart. They feel bad....It’s just not right how they make the kids feel who are left in the class.
“Can’t you make it so everyone can go?” Jessica wondered.
Boise’s new gifted school probably will never be prone to the same insane competition for entry as Hunter Elementary and similar schools that rely on IQ tests for admission. But make no mistake. In its own way, the ill-conceived public school for the “gifted” will be stacked in favor of Boise’s own privileged children, the ones lucky enough to have been born into families of the right color, the right education, and the right status on the socio-economic ladder.
Of course, one can’t but hope that the children who outpace their peers in math and other subjects get the best possible education in Boise’s public schools. The goal to help these children is laudable. But a making pseudo-private school for the privileged isn’t the answer. Creating interesting and rich learning environments for the “gifted” and dumbed-down learning experiences for the “ordinary” kids, so they can meet new state mandates for school accountability, won’t do either.
Using IQ tests as the prime gatekeeper to this school is unconscionable public policy and backward educational thinking. Boise school officials need to go back to the chalkboard and rethink the whole idea.