Gifted at 4, ordinary at 17

I want to thank Diana Senechal for guest-blogging for meso ably while I was on vacation. 

New York City parents prep their four-year-olds for IQ tests that will decide who gets into a “gifted” school, reports New York Magazine. But IQ tests aren’t very reliable for young children, especially at the high end of the scale.

Chance figures more prominently into high scores—a good night’s sleep, comfort with the tester—and lucky guesses on tough questions are worth more points than answers to midrange questions. In 2006, David Lohman, a psychologist at the University of Iowa, co-authored a paper called “Gifted Today but Not Tomorrow?” in the Journal for the Education of the Gifted, demonstrating just how labile “giftedness” is. It notes that only 45 percent of the kids who scored 130 or above on the Stanford-Binet would do so on another, similar IQ test at the same point in time. Combine this with the instability of 4-year-old IQs, and it becomes pretty clear that judgments about giftedness should be an ongoing affair, rather than a fateful determination made at one arbitrary moment in time.

Lohman estimates that only 25 percent of 4-year-olds who scored 130 or above would do so again as 17-year-olds.

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  1. I’m not at all surprised by this. Truly gifted children are rare. Most of these “gifted” programs are really tracking in disguise – they are designed to herd those children whose parents are likely to complain out of the regular education classes.

    I’ve actually known a few honestly gifted children – it’s not an automatic fast track to success. My younger brother was one such child. At the age of four months, my mother and I discovered him in his crib whistling. He had stumbled on how to do it, and was having fun with changing the pitch.

    Now, THAT’S gifted.

    Is he a success? In some ways. He has kept himself employed in the computer industry for over 35 years, with only an associate’s degree. He owns his own home, is active in church, and has many friends. Is he renowned? No.

    And, that’s the point. Truly gifted people may not have great career success; some have troubled personal lives; stories of gifted people (Whitney Houston, Tiger Woods, et all) abound with those whose lives are a train wreck. Equally important with encouraging academic and intellectual development is fostering emotional stability and “people smarts”.

    Wasn’t that one of the major ideas behind “Head of the Class”?

  2. tim-10-ber says:

    Thanks for posting this.

  3. You know, there’s truth to this post, and what LindaF said.

    I was labeled “borderline gifted” as a child (not that it ever got me anything) but apparently I am utterly ordinary as an adult. It would have been better, I think, not to raise my expectations…I walk around a lot of the time wondering what happened to me. I was “supposed” to do world-changing stuff.

    (Did I get lazy? Did I inadvertently eat something containing lead? Did puberty screw me up? What?)

  4. Margo/Mom says:

    Ah, ricki. I think it was in some Peanuts strip that I read that there nothing in the world is such a heavy burden as that of having a great potential.

    We have such profound faith in the labels we have created: both of the “learning disabilities” variety and those we call “gifted.” People are incredibly complex beings. As my son was going through high school in “resource” classrooms, one of his close friends was a young lady in the “gifted” program. They just had other things in common that were apparently more important than their labels.

  5. Deirdre Mundy says:

    On the flipside, I failed the ‘Kindergarten Readiness” test (got to go on time only b/c my parents knew the test-giver, and he knew me well enough to realize the test didn’t accurately reflect my vocab/knowledge/etc.).

    After a year in Kindergarten I got put in the ‘Dumb’ first grade class because I couldn’t read yet and had the fine motor skills of a drunken orangatang. (I’ve improved a bit since then on the motor skills… but not much)

    BUT as soon as I learned to read, I excelled. When to Magnet Jr. High and Highschool, graduated w/ honors from a top university, can read and write multiple languages and am generally considered ‘smart.’ (but not a genius– I’ve gone to school with ACTUAL geniuses– they’re a whole different world.)

    If you’d gone by the test I took at 4, you’d have predicted that I’d reach adulthood with an IQ somewhere between 80 and 100. (I was too ADHD to even bother to TRY half the exercises! They wanted me to focus! What was up with THAT?)

    Not that I’m super-amazingly-successful… I’m a stay at home mom married to an equally nerdy librarian– but we have interesting discussions, can read and understand most things, can teach ourselves about new subjects, and know a lot of really fascinating people…..

    Most kids who are ‘fast’ at 4 eventually slow down. Most of the ‘slow’ kids eventually catch up. I know some people who were ‘brilliant’ in Kindergarten (so great a phonics! Look how well she cuts and pastes) who were average by 6th or 7th grade– when phonics and paper-sculpting became less important.

  6. I'm not fooling anyone, am I? says:

    Being gifted is a little overrated, and trying to suss out who is “gifted” at age 4 requires more than a single test, as the article suggests.

    Here’s what always gets me… and it’s the same thing with finding gifted students as it is with finding gifted teachers: anyone who spends a month with them KNOWS if they’re brilliant, or if they’re gifted, or if they’re a great teacher. It doesn’t take a bloody examination; it just takes a little familiarity.

    I sometimes think that the examinations are there not to identify gifted students, but to give the veneer of objectivity to teachers and administrators who have to tell parents, “No, your kid isn’t the second coming of Stephen Hawking.” It’s so much easier to do that when you can point to some numbers.

    As for the burdens of potential… as a genuinely gestated gem of the genus genius, I am here to announce first-hand that the crap they tell you in high school about it not being how smart you are, but how hard you work…

    … is totally true. I’m a slacker. I have a great life, because my “slacker” mode is still in the top 2% of the population in terms of productivity. But I’m never going to cure AIDS because I don’t care about AIDS. I care about things like comic books, philosophy, board games, poker, reading cool sci fi, and drinking new types of wine. That means the things I truly, truly excel at are talking about comic books, discussing philosophy, playing board games and poker, and reading cool sci fi while drinking wine. I’ve VERY, VERY good at those. I absolutely excel.

    As for things that only hold my interest marginally…

    When I feel like writing a piece of music, I write a piece of music. It’s not particularly complex or great, because I don’t care enough to dedicate my life to it.

    When I feel like writing a poem, I write a poem. Metered or unmetered, rhyming or not… I can write a pretty damn good poem. But I’ll never be great at it because I don’t care enough to dedicate my life to it.

    When I feel like designing a house, I design a damn nice house. But I’ll never be great at it because I don’t care enough to dedicate my life to it.

    When I juggle, fence, play frisbee, write stories, cook, perform plumbing repairs, paint, teach someone math… you get the idea.

    The willingness to dedicate your life to something is what determines greatness more than anything else, I think.

    And that has f***-all to do with how gifted you are.

  7. Long ago, Peter Drucker wrote that it is inherently vicious for companies to focus on “potential” rather than “performance” in making employee promotion decisions. The same applies here. The problem with the term “gifted” is that it describes something you *are* rather than something you *do*.

    The various “gifted and talented” programs are mostly probably fine in concept EXCEPT that they should be retitled “performance programs” or “achievement programs” or something like that. I don’t think this is a trivial consideration.

  8. Preschool IQ tests can be unreliable, but they’re much more likely to underestimate a kid’s IQ than overestimate it. My 2nd got bored with copying the evaluator’s design during the “block assembly” sub-test of the WPPSI at 3 1/2 years old and decided that it would be much more fun to play with the blocks. But he loved the puzzle sub-test and ceilinged on that. It didn’t matter because the psychologist was able to get the information she needed (that his speech delay was not due to an overall low IQ). If we want an accurate assessment of his potential, we’ll need to wait until he’s mature enough to follow the directions.

    My oldest, however, recently took the CTY test at age 7 and her score is virtually identical to what would be predicted from her WPPSI score at age 4.

  9. David Foster,

    I agree with you.

  10. greeneyeshade says:

    I understand this is old news when it comes to higher mathematics. Rebecca Goldstein has looked into this in her novels ‘The Mind-Body Problem’ and ’36 Arguments for the Existence of God,’ and her book on Kurt Godel; it seems mathematicians regularly dry up early.

  11. That label! Gifted! Talented! It often ends up not helping as kids are afraid to fail, to venture out, to test their limits, fearing that the label may disappear.

    After I read Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, I understood a lot more about why this is. She writes about the fixed mindset (labels) and the growth mindset (sky’s the limit). I highly recommend her book.

  12. Having taught “gifted” populations, I found that there are some kids that are bright – they catch on fast, they master things quickly. And then there are some that are super-bright. They get things intuitively, they come up with amazingly creative ideas. They thrive on learning. I think sometimes IQ tests cannot differentiate the two.

    Also, if it really is easier to get that high score early, and you want your kid in a gifted program, start the program as early as possible. Many gifted schools have preschool programs. Depending on the school students may be allowed to continue on into the higher grades without ever restesting.

  13. “if it really is easier to get that high score early”

    I don’t think that’s the point of Lohman’s research. If early tests for IQ are unreliable at the top of the IQ scale, they’re unreliable in both directions.

    If only 25% of 4-year olds dubbed “gifted” by these tests will test “gifted” at 17, that means that 75% were incorrectly dubbed “gifted.” Logically, it also means that a large number of children who would test as “gifted” at 17 were incorrectly identified as “not gifted” at 4.

    The New York situation is nuts. We just watched the DVD, “Nursery University,” about preschool admissions in New York. I’m very glad we don’t live in New York.

    The best system would be a challenging curriculum available for all who think their children need it, and accepting that some schoolchildren are being honest when they call the curriculum boring. Don’t try to crown a few young children ueber special fantastically gifted, particularly on a test which is so easily coached. Something about those labels make adults behave very strangely around children.

  14. “Don’t try to crown a few young children ueber special fantastically gifted, particularly on a test which is so easily coached.”

    I second that! To me, conceiving the idea of being gifted as a static state of being is related to relegating a child’s potential based on the shade of their skin which can still happen in our society. Human beings are multifaceted beings who are not defined by one set of rules or tests. We need a world filled with people who are “gifted” in multiple ways or we will not function. So the question I ask is “Gifted? By whose definition?” If our gifted programs recognized area like humor and kindness and negotiation, they would have to be inclusive and it would become obvious that ALL children can be encouraged to develop their unique take on the world!

  15. I agree that IQ test can be unreliable. I also think that there may be other reasons a child could test high at a young age and average at 17. I was actually so shy when I was first tested that I did not answer many of the teachers questions. I remember those questions to this day because it ate at me that I had not answered. I still tested at 131. I rarely brought homework home and spent at least half of every day painting in the hall, running teachers’ errands, or tutoring other kids in my class. I still had a passion for learning during elementary. I understood many advanced concepts like physics, art, astronomy, zoology, and design. I did have one problem, however. I did not have anybody to share what I knew with. Few people understood where I was coming from. By the time middle school rolled around I had practically given up. I just did the work and got into trouble. I started smoking, drinking, and staying up past 2 a.m. I let humor become my outlet. I was full of wit and fury and frustration. If I had been tested at the age of 17 I have no doubt I would not have done well. I did not care to push myself anymore. I am in my 20’s now and I still struggle. I have had to teach myself to do things whether they are interesting or not. I have trouble with structure and confidence. But sometimes for a brief second I stumble upon something that holds my attention, and I remember the amazing feeling of being able to make connections and see the world in a way few people will ever experience. I know the test can be unreliable. I know parents can drill information into their toddlers heads allowing them to squeeze into the gifted system. I witnessed it just last week when sitting in a elementary library waiting for my daughter’s screening for a magnet school. While some parents were performing last minute cram sessions with their 4-year-olds, my daughter was playing with different colored craft balls on the floor. My daughter has never needed a rehersal. She has never been to pre-k I know there are slip-ups in the magnet and gifted schools, but I also know that I do not want my daughter to go through what I went through as a child. I want her to push and pull and discover and explore, and I know from my own experience that she will never have that gift at a regular public school. Finally I would have to say that I have worked with many gifted children. I seem to stumble upon them every where I work or live. I have never needed a test to see it. I think the best markers for the gifted are the ways they use what they have. I can see it in the way they look around. I can see it in the way they explore. I think the best way to help the gifted is to recruit the gifted as testers and teachers. Afterall, how is someone supposed to be able to find the gifted and understand the gifted if they have never been gifted and felt and seen the world through gifted eyes.


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