06/11/2010 03:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: "Gifted and Talented?"

In a recent New York Times article (6/1/10) it was reported that there was a "gender gap" in the "Gifted and Talented" programs in NYC. "Though the schools population over all is 51 percent male, its gifted classrooms generally have more girls." ("Gender Gap for the Gifted in the Schools of New York," A21) Conspicuously absent from the report was any mention of the disparity in racial, ethnic and economic class representation in these programs. According to a 2008 report in Education Week "Race, Ethnicity and Gifted and Talented Pipeline in New York City" (11/10/08), although Hispanic students make up 40% of the public school population, they only represent 23% of Gifted and Talented students, African-American children 37% of the student population and 21% in the special programs while Whites with only 11% of public school students are almost 1/3 of the program, and Asians, with 12% of the student population, one quarter of the Gifted and Talented. Since these Gifted and Talented programs act as "pipelines" to the more prestigious high schools in the City, I wonder how valid these "entrance exams for infants" are in determining a child's intellectual abilities since they are administered when the child is barely out of diapers. At an early childhood education conference I attended at CUNY in March, I asked several educators who specialized in this area and they told me that at such a young age, these tests had about the same validity "as a coin flip." But the results can be seen from the composition of students in the eight "specialized" NYC high schools. According to the New York Times, during the 2005-6 school year, black students made up 4.8 percent of the Bronx Science student body, down from 11.8 percent in 1994-95. At Brooklyn Technical High School, the proportion of black students declined from 37.3% to 14.9% during the same time period. At Stuyvesant, the number of blacks came down from 4.4% to 2.2% of the student body. Hispanic enrollment also declined at the three schools. Meanwhile, the Asian student population at Bronx Science rose from 40.8% to 60.6% In a more recent report in the Times (2/6/09) the total percentage of minority students admitted to these specialized schools slightly improved with a total of 69% White-Asian acceptances and 17% African-American-Hispanic (although I'm not sure how the other 14% were classified). However, going back to the pipeline from the Gifted and Talented programs, one must question the validity of these entrance tests. In an NPR interview (7/7/07) with Stephen Murdock, author of "IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea," the author quotes a research director at Harcourt Assessment, the company that produces the intelligence tests used in determining the eligibility of students to the Talented and Gifted programs. She admits;

"'Any IQ estimate before the age of five is obviously going to be unstable because children are going through such rapid cognitive development. . . . It's not until adolescence, let's say age sixteen and up [that] IQ is more stable.'"

The program concludes:

"How did schools, businesses, and governments decide that these rough, narrow estimates of innate intelligence, these stress producing tests consisting of a series of discrete little problems, are the best way to decide who is worthy and unworthy in countless settings? In a word, puffery. "

In a much earlier report concerning testing very young children, Lorrie A. Shepherd, a distinguished scholar in the field at the University of Colorado, declared:

"Developmental and pre-academic skills tests are based on outmoded theories of aptitude and learning that originated in the 1930s. The excessive use of these tests and the
negative consequences of being judged unready focused a spotlight on the tests'
substantive inadequacies. "

"The Challenges of Assessing Young Children Appropriately" Phi Beta Kappan, Nov. 1994. And there is Stephen Jay Gould's classic work on the misuse of intelligence tests: "The Mismeasure of Man" (1981) written almost thirty years ago and Howard Gardner's books on "multiple intelligences." As far as I can determine, the Gifted and Talented program is based even more on class than race, although both are significant factors in determining who "deserves" a decent education. It would be better for the education of all public school children enrolled in the city schools if they all had the same resources. What positive results might happen if the Department of Education "pretended" that all young learners, instead of just some, were "Gifted and Talented?"