On talented children…

The New York Magazine is currently running a long article on the way we look at talent and intelligence in children. And, what’s worse, how we take the results of intelligence tests applied to little children at the fragile age of 4 and turn them into tickets to their entire school careers. Gifted programs or rubbish schools, those options very much depend on the result of these tests. But the correlation between intelligence test findings and real intelligence, i.e. a person’s ability to absorb and apply knowledge and do well in life  is an arbitrary one, if there is one, since the IQ is a figure which isn’t absolute or etched in stone. It’s a relative number expressing how well you do vis-a-vis your peers, and that relation changes as you grow up. In other words, if by age 4 you’re not on top of your school game, you’ve pretty much dumped your career already. Surely, a free society should look at the bigger picture and still give kids a chance when they get the hang of things a bit later on.

The Atlantic has a short recommendation for the article and a great quote that outlines in a few sentences why the exaggerated faith in testing can lead to the exact opposite of a meritocracy (a system where those to do well or work hard succeed).

Intelligence is a process, not a fixed, gene-determined, thing. This process begins very early on, before we can even really see it, and we therefore often confuse these early, invisible stages with some sort of innate giftedness. Then we test kids and report the results as innate differences–this one is gifted, this one is not. This one has extra promise; that one does not. We send the “gifted” ones to good schools with small class sizes, better-trained teachers, better infrastructure, better relationships with parents, and higher expectations. We send the apparently-unpromising kids to under-funded, teach-to-test schools with minimal expectations.

And then there’s the New York Magazine article in full. Well worth reading if you’re in education or a parent or both.

What’s surprising is that a single test, taken at the age of 4, can have so much power in deciding a child’s fate in the first place. The fact is, 4 is far too young an age to reach any conclusions about the prospects of a child’s mind. Even administrators who use these exams—indeed, especially the administrators who use these exams—say they’re practically worthless as predictors of future intelligence. “At information meetings,” says Steve Nelson, head of the famously progressive Calhoun School, “I’ll often ask a room full of parents when their children started to walk.” Invariably, their replies form a perfect bell curve: a few at 9 and 10 months, most at 12 or 13, a few as late as 15 to 18. “And then I’ll ask: ‘What would you think if you were walking down the street, and you saw a parent yanking a 1-year-old child up from the sidewalk, screaming, ‘Walk, damn it?’ ” The same, he says, is true of a system that insists a child perform well on a test at 4 years of age. “Early good testers don’t make better students,” he tells me, “any more than early walkers make better runners.”

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