The Gifted Riddle
by Andy Lindstrom

As a signature signoff to his tongue-in-cheek tales about the mythical town of Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor never fails to remind us that the men are strong, the women good looking and all the children above-average.

Well, this isn't Minnesota, Prairie Home Companion fans. But there's something oddly familiar about the academic performance of Leon County school children-at least those who identify themselves as Caucasian.

According to last September's issue of Florida Trend magazine, a full 15 per cent of all the county's non-Hispanic white fifth graders are officially classified as "gifted." The fifth grade is the level at which participation in gifted programs peaks, state officials say. The 15 per cent figure is nearly seven times higher than national averages, and well over twice the state percentage.

On the other hand, students determined to be disadvantaged (read poor, minority or otherwise at risk) barely raise a blip on the county's gifted rosters at any classroom level. But they appear in disproportionate droves among the bottom-rung programs designed for students tagged as "exceptional"-i.e. learning disabled, emotionally handicapped or attention deficit disordered.

What's going on here? Are white boys and girls in Florida's state capital simply brighter than their peers? Are blacks and Hispanics somehow unfit for competition in the classroom? Or is there some kind of hidden agenda being played out, academic racism disguised as scientific fact? These are highly controversial questions that touch on issues many choose not to explore. At least, not for attribution.

But Florida State University education psychologist Dr. Louis Schwartz has been studying the performance of what he calls "the underachieving gifted" for more than 40 years. There's absolutely nothing askew with the number of brainy white youngsters spotted in the county's gifted screening, says Schwartz (Ed.D. Columbia University). What's wrong is how few from the disadvantaged ranks are given a similar boost.

"What they're overlooking are the potentially gifted," Schwartz says. "The misplaced, the misunderstood. The talented, creative ones who never get a chance."

In Schwartz' opinion, testing for exceptional children is flawed because it fails to recognize candidates whose talents don't match the conventional view of giftedness. One of the problems, he says, is that intelligence tests as they are presently interpreted give the best results to students who shine at what Schwartz calls "sequential learning," the step-by-step method practiced in most classroom settings. Not only are so-called "whole learners"-those who digest information all in one chunk-put off by such an approach, they're also penalized by the system.

"Do you realize that these tests have classified more than half the children with physical and emotional disabilities in this country as learning disabled?" Schwartz says. "They're the ones who can't sit still and aren't learning because they're bored and restless with how they're being taught."

Present testing procedures, Schwartz continues, say more about teaching style than student potential. "Imagine how many of these so-called underachieving kids are not just different, but treasures," he says. "Imagine how many are actually gifted."

In all fairness to Leon County, the Trend article was an attack on gifted programs statewide, citing what it called Florida's "record numbers of little genuises." Among Dade County's white fifth graders, for instance, the magazine reported that more than one in five is classified as having "superior intellectual development." That's a percentage even higher than Leon's. At the same time, the writers contended, some of Dade schools count close to one-half of such youngsters as gifted. Overall, they continued, the number of kids officially classified as gifted by Florida school administrators has jumped by 42 per cent over the past five years whi le enrollment in general had risen only 18 per cent.

Whatever reading one gives such reported figures (and several state and Leon County school officials question their accuracy), scoring high on intelligence tests has been an American concern-some might call it an obsession-for at least as long as there have been valedictorians and Phi Beta Kappa keys. The classic work in the field dates to Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman's five-volume Genetic Studies of Genius, published in 1925. Several years earlier, Terman had led a team of collaborators in designing America's first widely accepted IQ test-Stanford-Binet, a revised version of French psychologist Alfred Binet's landmark set of standards "normed" (that is, provided with scores representing the normal level of response at any age) to determine a child's mental age compared to his or her chronological age. By dividing the second figure into the first (i.e., an actual age of 10 into a tested age of 5), psychologists could come up with an intelligence quotient, or IQ, for predicting the child's potential development.

Like many scientific studies at the time, Schwartz says, Terman's work reflected his belief in the inherent superiority of Western European culture. As such, the test he first published in 1916 gave an unfair advantage to test-takers from a similar heritage. "He was a decent man, but racist," Schwartz says of Terman. "What followed is a whole history of discriminatory testing."

As Schwartz and others describe it, Terman's original Stanford-Binet test was heavily biased toward language-related skills such as vocabulary and reading comprehension. The same was true of Army Alpha and Beta, a pair of intelligence tests that Terman helped devise for the U.S. Army Testing Program. Commonly used to evaluate newly arrived immigrants, Schwartz says, Army Alpha and Beta tended to reflect far better scores for German and Scandinavian newcomers-relatively familiar with American customs and language after a long history of migration to America-than for their comparatively ill-prepared Eastern and Southern European counterparts. Not only were later American immigration quotas slanted to favor the more successful test-takers, Schwartz says, but American higher education also welcomed them with open arms. Poles, Italians and others including many of his own Jewish relatives and neighbors from Central European countries, ended up in vocational schools. During World War II, when military officials used the same tests on their recruits, the pattern was repeated.

"We were the ones who were sent to the labor battalions," he says, "while they went to officer training."

Over the years, Schwartz and students in the class he teaches on giftedness have identified a star-studded roll call of what he calls "disguised superkids" who overcame great social and physical handicaps on their rise to fame as adults: Civil-rights activist and politician Jesse Jackson grew up in poverty. Musicians Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder are blind. Gen. Colin Powell, Schwartz' former neighbor from New York's South Bronx, was labeled a slow learner in fifth grade.

>From writer Maya Angelou to actress Whoopi Goldberg, Schwartz says, the names he's collected stretch for pages. But it wasn't until psychologist David Wechsler came along shortly after World War II that these people's untapped potential finally could be measured. It took the civil-rights movement and its fallout before the mainstream academic community began to take notice.

Wechsler published his famous "Wechsler Intelligence Scales" in 1949. Breaking away from Stanford-Binet's reliance on verbal skills (which favored native whites, it was argued, because theirs was the dominant culture), Wechsler proposed that intelligence should be measured both verbally and through such visual-spatial cognitive skills as block design, object assessment and picture arrangement. By using these sub-tests, as he called them, Wechsler was able to identify both an overall IQ (the sum of the sub-tests) and individual areas of intelligence that Schwartz says he considered equally significant.

At New York University in 1952, Schwartz took part in one of Wechsler's graduate seminars. The experience opened his eyes to recognizing what he calls "the talented, creative ones who would change the world." But because they didn't score high overall, Schwartz says, "They would never be considered for the gifted programs."

As Schwartz explains it, Wechsler's intent was to show that kids with a talent for matching shapes or design were just as likely to show genius-level promise as kids who were good with words. "And that's where the potentially gifted come in," Schwartz says. "Most gifted programs still base their entrance requirements on full IQ. I say that the sub-tests are just as important an indicator. A young person who scores very high on one of the visual-spatial tests, for instance, might be a superkid who's completely overlooked."

Not everybody buys into Schwartz' argument. At least, not as public policy ostensibly designed to identify tomorrow's movers and shakers. FSU education psychology professor Dr. Joe Torgesen (Ph.D. Michigan), director of the university's cognitive and behavior science program, says any such test-based effort is "like looking for a needle in a haystack."

"Even among such an elite group as recognized scientists, perhaps a tenth of one per cent turns out to be individuals who make outstanding contributions in their life times. In a group such as (Schwartz' potentially gifted), it would be almost impossible to identify which ones really will make a difference as adults."

In Torgesen's view, society makes choices as to how it wants to spend its relatively scarce educational dollars. "There's an arbitrary cutoff," he says. "As a group, we've decided we can't make education special for everyone. So, we provide special education for kids at the extremes." Commonly accepted as polar extremes of intelligence is the phrase "two standard deviations from the mean." Often represented as a bell curve, this IQ continuum shows that most people cluster around the average: a test score of about 100. The upper 3 per cent or so whose scores start at 130 (two standard deviations above the mean on a Wechsler test), are traditionally identified as gifted; about the same percentage who score 70 or lower (two standard deviations below the Wechsler mean) carry the dubious label of mentally retarded.

Debate over the so-called "bell curve" has generated a great deal of heat in education circles, particularly since the 1994 publication of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein. Many commentators have attacked the book-particularly, its assertion that intelligence stems primarily although not exclusively from genetics-as a racist justification for treating minorities, who score relatively lower as a group on IQ tests, as intellectually inferior. Others see it as a valid reflection of scientific studies generally accepted by experts in the field.

"Intelligence can be measured, and intelligence tests measure it well," says Dr. John B. Carroll, distinguished professor emeritus in psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "The spread of people along the IQ continuum, from low to high, can be represented well by the bell curve, in statistical jargon, the 'normal curve'."

In a December 1994 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Carroll and 49 other scientists signed a statement verifying that intelligence tests such as the Wechsler readily underscore racial differences. Black 17-year-olds perform on the average, they say, more like white 13-year-olds in reading, math and science. Asian and Jewish youngsters score higher than either group; Hispanics fall somewhere in between.

Both genetic and environmental differences are involved, Carroll and the others say. But they hold that genetics apparently plays the greater role in creating IQ differences, adding that recent studies aimed at manipulating environment as a means of permanently raising low IQ show promise but still remain bogged down inthe greater debate.

FSU psychologist Dr. Richard Wagner (Ph.D. Yale) (not one of the Wall Street signers) questions his colleagues' conclusions. "What it comes down to is how you want to define terms such as retarded and gifted," Wagner says. "Relying simply on an IQ test is far too narrow, in my opinion." Wagner specializes in the study of practical intelligence, what he calls "practical know-how." In areas such as management and sales, he says, such "horse sense" talents are far more useful than those measured by standard testing. "The notion of what it means to be gifted should be expanded," he says. "There should be more emphasis on practical skills."

Whether such a shift in emphasis will bridge the opportunity gap between races remains to be seen, Wagner concedes. But he does believe it will help level the academic playing field. Officials in the state Department of Education see that as a desirable goal.

"We have long recognized a disproportionate representation of certain groups in our exceptional student programs," says Michelle Pollard, the state's supervisor of student outcomes and program development. "I think if you start off reasoning that an equal percentage of students should come from all groups-and that's our basic perception-then we haven't done a good job of identifying them properly."

The traditional way of identifying gifted students in Florida's public schools, Pollard says, boils down to that basic 130 IQ measurement, which is allowed to dip as low as 127, considering a built-in, three-point standard margin of error. To beef up the numbers from what state officials call "underrepresented populations," state guidelines adopted in 1991 give local school systems another option. Known as Plan B, it opens the door to gifted programs for black, Hispanic and other students with either a limited English proficiency or from a low socio-economic background whose tests scores might fall short but who show outstanding promise in other ways, such as leadership potential, performance evaluations or statements of benefit or need.

Statistics aren't available to reflect Plan B's impact statewide, says Bruce Harrison of the state education department's data and research bureau. But December 1994 figures show 84,481 youngsters in grades K-12 classified as gifted. That's 4.14 per cent of the state's 2.1 million public-school students. Harrison places Leon County's gifted population at 7.7 per cent, or 2,355 of 30,494 enrolled in school. Ward Spisso, director of the county's exceptional student education, says that 298 white fifth graders were classified as gifted in the December count. A total of 30 African Americans, 14 Asians and one American Indian earned the same designation among 2,490 fifth-grade students. Unfortunately, he adds, Leon's gifted population comes from both public and private schools, and county statisticians don't keep combined enrollment figures.

"I don't know how Florida Trend came up with its 15-per cent figure for our fifth graders," Spisso says. "But we definitely have a higher percentage of gifted students than the state average. Even though we follow the same eligibility criteria."

Qualifying scores from either a Wechsler or revised Stanford-Binet test continue as the county's primary tool for identifying gifted students, Spisso says. But Plan B recommendations and statements of need have added about 200 new faces to the program. Without going through individual files, he says, there is no way of knowing how many of them are minority students. As for Schwartz' recommendation to put more weight on sub-test scores, "That's an interesting proposal," Spisso says. "We'd be interested in further investigations."

Investigations, maybe. But implementation is another matter. Until the state legislature capped enrollment last year, each student in a gifted class "earned" local school districts $700 a year in state education money. Since Leon County has already exceeded its cap, says school psychologist Susan Barnes, any so-called "incentive" to pad enrollment-as implied by Trend-makes no sense.

Barnes, a past president of the Florida Association of School Psychologists, is one of several private or school-related psychologists certified to administer the intelligence tests. Yes, she's heard rumors, she says, of people who think they can get their kids into gifted programs by buying high scores from independent test administrators. "But I've never seen any evidence that it's true," she says, in reference to such allegations in the Trend article. "At least, not in this school district. On the contrary, we're bursting at the seams now. I don't see how we could take any more."

According to Barnes, Leon County has dropped all alternative procedures for entry into the gifted program. New enrollees, she says, must meet the 130 IQ test, period. At the same time, Spisso and others including Leon school superintendent Richard Merrick defend the present impressive crop of whiz kids by pointing to several intellectual advantages including a high percentage of white-collar parents employed in state government, two universities and a community college. "It only stands to reason a lot of our kids would score above average," Spisso says. "They come from families with a tradition of academic achievement."

FSU's Torgesen agrees that Spisso's explanation is plausible. "But there's really no way to know for sure if it's true," he adds. "Without actually testing everybody in the community, we have no hard data to support that conclusion."

As Torgesen explains it, chances that two parents of high IQ will produce equally bright offspring runs into a statistical phenomenon known as "regression to the mean." That is, high-IQ parents usually have children who test lower than they do, just as the children of low-IQ parents usually test higher. "It's not always true," he says. "But most cases of genetic mixing usually tend back toward the mean. Maybe if we went to other university communities such as Gainesville or Ann Arbor, Michigan, we might come up with some kind of comparison."

Whatever the result of such investigations, Schwartz says, school officials still put too much emphasis on full-scale IQ scores. They aren't looking at the sub-tests as Wechsler intended. Even so, "For the first time, diversity is in," he says, thumbing through a study he made in June of students in Broward County's gifted program.

Funded by a small grant from the state Dept. of Education, Schwartz' study analyzes Wechsler-test scores of two groups: 109 boys and girls in grades K-12 who came in by way of traditional screening and testing methods; and, 416 students admitted through Plan B. On one page, a chart links the sub-test scores of a Hispanic kindergartner; on another, those of an African-American 3rd grader. Although their full IQs read 120 and 123, respectively, both "hit the top," Schwartz says, in visual-spatial skills. Both are faring well in Broward's gifted program.

"To me, this is proof that you don't need to set a standard of 130 for whites and something lower for blacks," Schwartz says. "That's racism. My way, they get in because they belong. And they have the scores to prove it."