First things first: “Genius” is a cultural term. There is no statistical definition of genius. Even the well-known international high-IQ society Mensa's stringent testing identifies not “geniuses” but, rather, people whose ability and creativity put them in the top 2 percent of the population. A more common—and politically correct—term in the world of education is “gifted.” Many schools have a “gifted and talented” program, but how many kids actually belong in them? According to the National Association for Gifted Children, about 6 percent of U.S. children. Other experts find this number to be on the generous side. “Gifted children are very rare…in your average classroom, there will be none,” notes Michelle Rhee, CEO and founder of StudentsFirst, an organization devoted to improving our public schools at the grassroots level, and former chancellor of the Washington, DC, public school system. “My daughter is in a class for ‘gifted and talented.’ Twenty percent of her grade is in this class. Hmm…twenty percent of the population is not gifted.” The special classes can start as early as kindergarten, and making the cut usually depends upon both observation of the child and the results of several commonly used “school ability” or reasoning tests geared to young kids. Some parents also enlist the help of child psychologists to determine giftedness, often through IQ testing.
The Lowdown on Testing
Standardized tests given in public elementary schools measure how much of the state-mandated subject matter taught up to that point has been learned. IQ tests, on the other hand, are more about logic and reasoning ability. “They measure a child's ability to find solutions to problems. The results very much show how much practice the child has had…how often he's had a chance to solve a similar problem before,” explains Frank Lawlis, Ph.D., American Mensa's supervisory psychologist and author ofThe IQ Answer. Yet many experts say both types of tests can be poor indicators of a child's true ability. “What if the child didn't get a good night's sleep or is getting over a cold? Maybe the room is too hot or the kid next to him is fidgeting and distracting him?” notes Vivian Kirkfield, former Head Start and kindergarten teacher and author of Show Me How! Building Your Child's Self-Esteem Through Reading, Crafting and Cooking. Standardized tests are just one gauge of student achievement and should never be used as the lone measure, adds Dennis Van Roekel, National Education Association president. “Performance on a single test actually tells you very little about your child. We all know—parents and teachers—that our children are much more than a test score.” In other words, tests are only one tool in the toolbox. “Do you need a hammer to build a house? Yes, but you can't build a house using only a hammer,” Van Roekel notes.
Even Lawlis admits that an IQ score in the highest range is limited in how much it can predict about future success. It can be more helpful to look at what tests can't illuminate: the ability to appreciate the perspective of others, self-control, and persistence—traits that are crucial to school and life achievement. “Kindergarten teachers are more concerned about kids who are behind in social and emotional markers like those than academic ones,” notes Brenneman, who has done extensive research on early cognitive development. “It's about much more than math, science, and language skills.”