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The IQ factor: Despite advances in defining gifted children, intelligence testing still plays a large role

Sunday, June 10, 2001

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the old days, "it was 129 you're out, 130 you're in," declares Joseph Renzulli, one of the nation's leading experts on gifted education.

He isn't talking about the junior lightweight boxing division, but the breakoff point he refers to was just as unforgiving.

Until the late 1960s, the magic number of 130 was the IQ marker used by school psychologists to draw the boundary between gifted and "nongifted" children, and whether they would get special educational services. And even though school districts now use other criteria as well, many still rely partly on the 130 IQ cutoff.

Joseph Renzulli, who's the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, visited Pittsburgh in April to attend the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education conference. Renzulli advocates enriching all students, a position that sometimes draws criticism from those who see it as weakening programs for gifted students. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

The term "gifted child" was coined in the early part of the 20th century by Stanford University's Lewis Terman, who developed one of the first tests to measure intelligence.

The Terman test and most other standard IQ exams focus primarily on memory and analytical skills. The average score is 100. A score of 110 means the person is in the top 25 percent of the population, a score of 120 is in the top 7 percent and a score of 130 or higher is in the top 2 percent.

Terman himself proclaimed that anyone scoring 132 on his exam was a genius.

Later, however, he would backtrack from that, noting that after 30 years of followup studies of 150 highly successful and much less successful men, tests alone didn't tell the story. "Personality factors are extremely important determiners of achievement," Terman concluded -- including overall social and emotional confidence, combined with a drive to achieve.

Today, most experts generally define a gifted child as one who acquires and processes information and solves problems at a younger age and a faster rate than others.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Beyond IQ

Since Terman's pioneering work, researchers have come up with many different ways of measuring gifted children. A University of Chicago educator first suggested in 1958 that children with "outstanding potentialities in art, writing or social leadership... any child ... whose performance in a potentially valuable line of human activity is consistently remarkable," should be recognized as gifted.

In 1971, the Marland Report to Congress presented a broader picture of giftedness by enumerating six areas: general ability, specific academic aptitude, creative or productive thinking, leadership ability, visual and performing arts, and psychomotor ability.

Today, in defining those who need special services, the federal Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act never actually uses the word "gifted" -- a label deemed politically incorrect in some quarters because it stigmatizes those who don't qualify. Instead, statutory language talks about children "with outstanding talent" who perform or show the potential for performing "at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience or environment."

There are 50 different definitions of giftedness in 50 different states, and while many states have incorporated elements of the Marland report into their definitions and many schools say they use multiple criteria for evaluating children, it's still relatively rare that a child with an IQ below 130 is identified as gifted.

Still, efforts are under way nationally to move the notion of giftedness away from something based on a number.

Howard Gardner of Harvard University developed a concept of multiple intelligences in the early 1980s that has been influential, and Renzulli is known for his controversial "three-ring" circle of giftedness: ability, creativity and task commitment, all of which stress external behaviors rather than just innate giftedness. His initial article on the subject more than 25 years ago was rejected by every gifted education journal; today it is the most widely cited article in the literature.

Renzulli, who directs the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut -- the only federally funded organization for gifted research in the nation -- is also known for advocating that schools focus on enriching all students. That has earned him some critics, who say schools use his words to water down programs for the gifted.

'It's who you are'

One pointed critic of Renzulli's approach is James DeLisle, a professor at Kent State University. "Gifted is not what you do, it's who you are," DeLisle says. "I don't buy the notion that if you don't produce something, you're not gifted."

For proof, he says, go to any juvenile detention center. In one of DeLisle's classes, students spend time tutoring incarcerated youths, "and they would go in with this stereotype that these are slow learners and come back with requests for books on calculus."

DeLisle, author of the best-selling "The Gifted Children's Survival Guide," is a strong proponent of what he calls the "athletic model" of education, in which children are lumped into varsity, junior varsity and intramural teams.

And in that model, gifted children are grouped together.

"They're able to be who they are, intellectually and emotionally, and people won't make fun of them. They think, 'Gee, I'm not the only one in the class who thinks this way.'"

DeLisle is not alone in believing IQ is destiny.

In fact, a small cottage industry has sprung up trying to identify different levels of gifted children. Some identify those with IQs from 130-145 as "moderately gifted," or just plain "gifted;" those between 145 and 160 are "highly" gifted; those between 160 and 180 are "exceptionally" or "profoundly" gifted.

It is this last group, the children who score off the charts, that most concerns Denver researcher Linda Silverman, who believes IQ tests used in most schools today have a ceiling effect that keeps scores artificially low. As a result, many profoundly gifted students go unrecognized, or are left to struggle in schools designed to teach the average child.

Still others, like Boston College researcher Ellen Winner, believe that some profoundly gifted children may excel in just one area -- and that ability might not be detected in an IQ test.

Nonetheless, these children share the same three characteristics, she says, whether in math or music or art: "One, precocity in their particular area; two, a rage to master that area; and three, marching to their own drummer, thinking in unusual ways, in that area."

Winner, who is married to Howard Gardner, has helped persuade some states to include musical or artistic ability in their definitions of giftedness, but she says "it doesn't do much good if the programs for gifted children are only academic."

Auditions may help

To that end, Rena Subotnik, a Hunter College researcher, is leading an outreach effort by the American Psychological Association to consider how talent development in the realms of music and sports can inform the identification of giftedness in schools.

"Giftedness to me means potential to be developed," Subotnik says. "Academic potential can be expressed as acute sensitivity to language and the kind of logic reflected in an intelligence test. With older children, giftedness may be better expressed in the form of audition -- a submitted piece of writing, an oral description evaluated by rigorous judges."

"The IQ has its use," she adds. "It's a good beginning, but it's not the end of the story. Too often, we're forced to make too much of it because parents want good programs for their children, and if the only good programs around are labeled as gifted programs, there's a lot of pressure to get your child in.

"When the stakes are high, parents will only accept a standardized test score as a reason for acceptance into or rejection from a program.

"While a very high IQ score is unlikely to be a false positive, young children who do not score highly may reflect false negatives. Someone who doesn't score well may indeed be gifted."

While moving away from a test-based model means introducing more subjectivity into the mix, the alternative, she and others believe, would mean restricting gifted programs only to those who take tests well, excluding lower-scoring students who are equally if not more creative and task-oriented learners.

Moreover, lack of teacher training, along with prejudice, may mean that a gifted child is overlooked because he or she is from a poor family, or doesn't speak much, or misbehaves constantly -- though studies show there are as many gifted children in poor families as rich ones.

In addition, longstanding criticisms that IQ and other tests are culturally biased against minorities have prompted new efforts to identify gifted children. Nationally, blacks make up 17 percent of the total student population, but only 7.3 percent of gifted and talented classes, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In 1996, a group of researchers reported in the educational quarterly "Gifted Child" that after using a series of open-ended cognitive tasks, such as picture recognition, word meaning, or the sequencing of different and similar objects, they were able to identify gifted black and Hispanic children in Florida's Dade County who might otherwise have been ignored. And Columbia University's James Borland was able to locate young gifted children from poor homes by observing the children in classrooms and visiting them at home, as well as relying on teacher referrals and assessments of their classroom work.

In Pittsburgh, where only about 7 percent of all minority children are in gifted programs citywide, a $200,000 federal grant is being used to develop alternative assessments aimed at disadvantaged children.

For now, though, the IQ remains the standard measurement tool, which irks some.

In his speech before a packed audience at the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education, Renzulli told the story of a Maryland girl who had begun a project researching how to build a playground for disabled children, which eventually became a reality after she persuaded the local government to construct it.

It was a remarkable example of one of Renzulli's favorite concepts, the "enrichment cluster," in which highly motivated children are pulled out of the regular class so they can produce something of concrete benefit to the community.

Her IQ was beside the point.

"Was she 'gifted?' Who gives a damn?" he said.

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