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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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