The gifted gap

One of the students in my Gender & Politics (David just learned about the ampersand this week and is totally intrigued by it– I actually say “ampersand” when describing this class just so it’s clear, along with Media & Public Opinion) class this summer, sent me the link to this really interesting story about the gender gap in New York city’s elementary gifted programs.

Weird or not, the disparity at the three schools is not all that different from the gender makeup at similar programs across the city: though the school system over all is 51 percent male, its gifted classrooms generally have more girls.

What’s going on?  The answer is obvious from the next paragraph:

Around the city, the current crop of gifted kindergartners, for example, is 56 percent girls, and in the 2008-9 year, 55 percent were girls. [emphasis mine]

Gifted kindergartners??!  The whole concept of separating “gifted” children at that age is not only counterproductive and stupid, but totally scientifically invalid.  Let’s just call this Nurtureshock week, and I’ll come back to it to refer to what was among the most interesting chapters– the horrible job we do of identifying kids as “gifted” at much too early an age.  I don’t have the exact numbers with me because a friend has been delinquent in returning it, but suffice to say a very substantial portion of kids who test “gifted” at 5 no longer test gifted at 8; and, of course, vice versa.  Many children whom are clearly exception at 8, 9, or even later tested completely ordinary at 5 or 6.  Despite this fact, once kids test into a gifted program, they are never tested back out and many systems only offer one opportunity to test in at too early an age.  Thus, given everything we already know about the development of young boys and girls, you get gender gap you see here.  The Times article minces words a bit much for my taste, but here’s the gist:

Why more girls than boys enter the programs is unclear, though there are some theories. Among the most popular is the idea that young girls are favored by the standardized tests the city uses to determine admission to gifted programs, because they tend to be more verbal and socially mature at ages 4 and 5 when they sit for the hourlong exam.

If you want to create a gifted system with more girls than boys, I can think of few better ways than a standardized test for 5-year olds.  That said, I don’t have a problem with this particular gender gap, per se, but I do think it provides a very useful window on how fraught such early educational testing is.  (Now, go get yourself a copy of Nurtureshock already).

UPDATE: Big Steve takes me to task for failing to make the obvious connection to the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter.  Of course, at Hogwarts, they wisely wait till the kids are 11.  If they sorted kids at 5, I think they all might end up in Slytherin :-).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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