In the whole world you know
There are billion boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black,
And that’s a fact!
Though she is not a psychometrician, I was reminded of Nina Simone’s song by a recent paper on identifying gifted children, which found that an IQ test was better than the standard teacher referral systems at detecting bright black and hispanic kids. Good news I thought, and yet another vindication of intelligence testing.
However, before talking about that study, I want to heave half a brick at the concept of “giftedness” as regards cognitive ability. My irritation is that the concept is applied in a way which suggests that there is another avenue to being bright than that of being bright. “Giftedness” researchers tend to cluster in a separate reservation, arguing that they can detect this gift in a way particular to them, and that it is different from being intelligent. Doubtful.
This study also reminded me of my first months testing the intelligence of children referred to a child psychiatry clinic, and coming across a young black boy with an IQ of 140. On starting my job I had decided, slightly against the usual custom at that time, to give all children and their parents a summary and explanation of their test results. I suggested to his mother that the boy’s father should ring up, and when he did, very happy and excited, we planned extra reading and events for him. My records of that period must be long lost, but it would be interesting to know what became of him.
Now to the study.
Universal screening increases the representation of low-income and minority students in gifted education. David Card and Laura Giuliano. PNAS vol. 113 no. 48 David Card, 13678–13683, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1605043113
The authors state the problem thus:
In 2012, 7.6% of White K−12 students participated in gifted and talented programs nationwide, compared with only 3.6% of Blacks, 4.6% of Hispanics, and 1.8% of English learners.
In Florida, an IQ of 130 is required for gifted status. That immediately suggests that the above figures are too high, since only 2.2% would be expected among white students and 0.13% among black students. Odd. Perhaps they are merely “promising” rather than actually “gifted” students. It turns out there is a Plan B stream comprised of English language learners and financially poor students who are allowed in at IQ 116. That laxer benchmark would allow in 14.3% of white students and 1.9% of black students.
In one test district a group non-verbal intelligence test was used to select bright children, and then face to face testing was conducted to confirm “gifted” status. Cut-offs were 130 and 115.
As to the results, the authors say:
Our analysis yields three main conclusions. First, the introduction of the screening program led to a large increase in the fraction of students classified as gifted. Second, the newly identified gifted students were disproportionately poor, Black, and Hispanic, and less likely to have parents whose primary language was English. They were also concentrated at schools with high shares of poor and minority students and low numbers of gifted students before the program. Thus, the experiences of the District confirm that a universal screening program can significantly broaden the diversity of students in gifted programs. Third, the distribution of IQ scores for the newly identified students was similar to the distribution for those identified under the old system, particularly among students who qualified under the Plan B eligibility standard. The newly identified group included many students with IQs well above the minimum eligibility threshold, implying that even high-ability students from disadvantaged groups were being overlooked under the traditional referral system.
Note that whereas before there were two entry routes there are now 4, or possibly even 6, each with an error term. That is because at each stage there will be errors of commission and omission. Some kids will be unjustly turned down, and possibly some accepted through lucky guesses. The technique of using intelligence tests will identify bright children, which is precisely what intelligence test were designed to achieve. So, IQ testing has produced an excellent result, with a better discriminative power than the referral system, and far fairer. Although it is nothing strictly to do with the selection method, the twin cut-offs are a messy complication. Half were judged by 130 and half by 115 cut-offs. So, they want the gifted, and the half-gifted, on the assumption that the latter would be gifted but for adventitious disadvantages. Let us look at the results.
This is the test used. It is non-verbal, which is a big advantage when discussing racial and cultural differences, because it is assumed that verbal tests are more subject to those influences.
Here are two key tables, Table 1 showing the basic facts about the samples from which the selection was made, Table 4 showing the characteristics of the selected “gifted” children.
Table 1 is complicated. It gives the demographics of the students, which is fine, but then reveals that half of them are deemed eligible for the lower entry standard Plan B. So, the simple explanation is that this group had fewer gifted children, but that IQ tests were better at detecting them, albeit to the lower standard required of them.
Table 4 is also complicated. For the full sample of 78,065 students (see bottom line) the average IQ is roughly 130, for the 37.947 on Plan B the IQ is 124. Scholastic achievement scores are much higher in the full sample than the Plan B sample. So, Plan A students are probably at a mean of 136.
In fact, one of the unremarked features of the data is that, as the proportion of white children in the school population falls from 61% in 2004 to 43% in 2007, achievement drops from 1.39 to 1.22, and even more in the Plan B group.
There is more detail which could be looked at, but I draw two main points from this paper.
The first is that a test of intelligence (in this case a 30 minute non-verbal one) is the best method of screening children for inclusion in programs designed for children of high intelligence. The tests work better than letters of recommendation. Commendably, the tests identify more bright children who are poor and black than do teachers. Again, this is what intelligence tests were designed to be: “school far” rather than “school near”: they were intended to pick up bright students who had ability, and knew the things that any bright person might know, and not just the specialized knowledge someone who had been to an expensive school might know. Working class advancement, the detection of true merit, the collapse of unwarranted privilege: all good stuff.
The second thing is that Florida’s view of giftedness is based on a double standard. A Black or Hispanic child gets access to a gifted-child program when they are one standard deviation in intelligence lower than white children. The presumed justification is that the lower scores for Black and Hispanic children are entirely due to environmental circumstances. I find this a questionable procedure, because it makes assumptions about language and poverty having deleterious effects on intelligence which I do not think are properly validated. The intelligence test scores were not based on verbal content, nor on general knowledge or vocabulary, so they ought to be the best measures of ability.
A final suggestion: the authors explain that this potentially promising project was stopped because of financial constraints. It is a historical review of a program, but here is a gentle suggestion: tell every school that the giftedness program will be offered on the basis of the results of a short non-verbal intelligence test, and that parents cannot pay for private intelligence testing. Drop the expensive face to face intelligence testing at schools. Drop Plan A and Plan B. Explain that the plan is to take the brightest 2 to 3% of the school population, and the cut-off will be set accordingly. Then get on teaching the extra lessons for the brightest students.