Smart vs. gifted

Patti Ghezzi, a former education reporter with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, now works in university communications.

When I got the news my daughter didn’t make it into the gifted program, I broke down crying in the principal’s office. It was one of the most mortifying moments of my life, but fortunately, the principal was unfazed.

How could it not wound me to find out that even though my child met the criteria spelled out on the state’s website, there were additional criteria? And on those, my daughter failed, receiving a grade of 48 on a “creativity test.”

My daughter taught herself to read at age 4 using a Dick and Jane book. Her kindergarten teacher recommended her for pre-gifted, as did her first-grade teacher, and the gifted teacher told me my child was a joy to have in the program.

On the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, she scored in the 99th percentiles on reading and math, and she scored 90 percent on a creativity test and a motivational test. But on the CogAT, which assesses actual gifted qualities, she was in the average range. Still, the state’s website said she only had to meet three of four criteria.

But the same instrument was used to assess creativity and motivation, so she had to take another test. She got two points for each correct answer, one point for each wrong answer and minus one for each time she responded “don’t know.” She responded “don’t know” too many times. A questionnaire her teacher filled out asked what type of leadership activities she was involved in at school. There are no leadership activities for first-graders at her school. She was out.

I was a reporter at the AJC 20 years ago when the newspaper published an important series about how black children are denied access to gifted programs. The series pushed for changes in the criteria. When admission is solely based on standardized test scores, children from upper-income homes like mine have an unfair advantage over kids with fewer advantages at home.

The current process, though, is muddled and flawed. Our hard-working gifted teacher was run ragged trying to get everyone tested using the state’s baffling array of instruments while fielding questions from furious and confused parents. The stress weighed on the kids. Who wouldn’t want to be one of the chosen few who get to line up for gifted?

My tears have dried. I scoured websites for information on gifted children and discovered my child is not gifted. My daughter’s teacher told me bluntly, “She is not gifted; she is smart.” Even my mother agreed.

My daughter doesn’t see the world from a different angle or become obsessed with obscure topics. (Her current obsession is Minecraft.) When she gets a Lego set, she first unfolds the instructions and builds a contraption just like the one pictured on the box. Then she takes it apart and makes something cool. She doesn’t ask endless questions. She never even asked what became of all that gifted testing.

Had she asked, I would have told her that gifted education is for kids who learn a little differently and need something beyond what is offered in the classroom. My daughter has always been served beautifully in the classroom. Pre-gifted was a bonus.

In her class, two kids made it into gifted who had not been flagged for pre-gifted. Both are English language learners. The two other kids who made it (one white, one black) are on a different plane intellectually.

Several of my daughter’s classmates hit the same roadblock, bombing the “creativity test.” Here’s what gets me: At least two of those kids are clearly gifted. They see the world from a different angle. They get obsessed with obscure topics. They exhaust their parents with questions. They learn a little differently, and they are not getting all they need in the traditional classroom.

We need a less convoluted system that identifies all the kids who need and deserve gifted services, regardless of race and background.

More importantly, we need to lower the stakes by providing all kids with engaging activities like those offered in gifted classes. Why should only gifted children build bridges out of spaghetti and marshmallows? Why should only the kids who look at the world from a different angle get taught from a different angle?

Parents often want their kids in gifted so they can get a reprieve from numbing, test-driven instruction. If we gave teachers the time and encouragement to break out of the worksheet rut, getting shut out of gifted wouldn’t sting so much.