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Is Your 3-Year-Old Gifted? Yes or No Answers

New York City is looking for a new test to measure giftedness, which, on the one hand, is a good thing. Many people actually send preschoolers to prep school to get ready for the test—and others complain (and blow up at each other on message boards) that doing so is unfair.  It does result in a skew of the types of kids that get into the program (wealthier, less diverse). But, the new test could be given to kids as early as 3 years old, which just seems even more wrong to me. Here’s why:

I spent two plus years teaching at a public high school in rural Japan—and was saddened by “one of the best education systems in the world.” I taught at a lower level school where students had already had their cards handed to them by the time they were 13. That was the magic age when they would take a national standardized test and—along with their 8th grade teacher’s recommendation--determine which high school in their area they would ride the train through the misty mountains to every morning.

I’m simplifying to make a point, but they could go to a school focused on science and technology, one more focused on sports, or a school for the “others,” which was where I taught, and where students could be 99 percent sure that they faced a life of wading through knee-high water in rice paddies. Many students there were brilliant: One girl I had lunch with everyday in the music room could listen to a tune then play it note for note on the piano. She hung her head down and giggled off her expertise. Why wasn’t she in the “music” school? One student spoke prolific English, a skill he had taught himself from playing computer video games that—get this—he had built himself. But he was a nervous type, and the first to admit he got overly anxious during tests.

In my mind, after working with thousands of those students, it was totally unfair to start segregating them at such a young age—and that was 13, not 3! At least, I knew it was wrong to base their lives one professional opinion and a one-size-fits-all test. I’m all for giving kids with different abilities a different kind of attention, but I think we should keep exposing kids to different subjects and skills to let their abilities blossom over time. And I don’t agree with creating tension and exclusion so early in life.

Do you think gifted test is fair? At what age should we start testing kids for placements that will determine their fate in life?