Does Being Older Help Your Child Win a Gifted Slot?

Last week, The New York Times noticed that we'd singled out New York City's gifted-and-talented testing and placement process for flouting the science and being the No. 1 worst offender. We'd surveyed the 20 largest school districts in the country; all of them anoint kids as gifted before third grade, but New York fills the vast majority of its slots in kindergarten, allowing scant room for late bloomers. And once in the gifted system, children never have their intelligence retested.

As we noted in NurtureShock, late bloomers are extremely common─fully one third of the highest-achieving third graders scored below average on kindergarten entrance tests.

It's important to note we're not the only ones singling out New York. At the American Psychological Association's annual conference in Toronto last month, a special panel was convened to discuss the problems with testing for giftedness so young. City University of New York's Frances Horowitz, editor of a handbook on giftedness, took to the podium and laughed about her home city's unwillingness to retest kids. "In New York City, the gifted label sticks like Velcro," she remarked, implying that it never comes off. Several other scholars agreed with her, such as the University of Iowa's David Lohman.

We realize this idea─kids are being sorted and anointed too young─might already be planted in the zeitgeist due to Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. I loved his book, but a couple of clarifications of the research are necessary. Gladwell makes the compelling case that in Canadian hockey and European soccer, kids are deemed select-quality and chosen for elite teams not because of their true ability but simply because they're a little older. Kids born in January have an 11-month advantage over kids born in December. Gladwell suggests this same dynamic is at fault in screening kids for gifted-education programs and private-school admittance.

However, that's a bit of a misnomer. Every school district we talked to used standardized intelligence tests or achievement tests to screen for giftedness. All of those tested are normed for age─the scoring system accounts for this. A child's score is compared with that of kids born in the same third of the calendar year, not kids born during the entire calendar year. A kid won't be competing against other kids 11 months older─at most, it'd be three months older.

IQ tests and achievement tests get at least one thing right that soccer and hockey coaches do not.

We have one other quibble about the science popularized in Outliers. Next up, in our post tomorrow: whether the benefit of being a little older when you start kindergarten still makes a difference in eighth grade.