Student Tests Should Recognize the Plasticity of Giftedness

Gifted education is often rife with elitism: test results used to identify gifted students tend to reflect the social strata of the students' families and reinforce the achievement gap.  This is partly because wealthy and pushy parents are more likely to ensure that their children are nurtured and identified as gifted.  To level the educational field, tests should be available to all students and should be administered recurrently.  Furthermore, the definition of giftedness should be expanded.

Since intelligence is malleable, tests that identify gifted students should be malleable.  Since giftedness encompasses traits beyond intelligence, tests should measure those traits.

Accommodating gifted students in public schools whose primary objective is grade-level proficiency is problematic.  Historically, schools have spent far more resources helping low-achieving students than gifted students.  However, the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed in 2015, does contain provisions to support gifted students.  Among these are the more flexible use of funds to identify and serve gifted and talented students and to train educators to administer gifted programs. 

Even if funds are available to implement services like specialized curricula or grade advancement, identifying those who participate is fraught with peril.  ESSA, which allows combining periodic assessments into a summative score, has created angst amongst testing experts.  The psychometricians who specialize in these things warn that the validity of tests that combine interim test scores into a summative score are suspect.

While ESSA has provisions for computer-adaptive assessments, the processes for identifying gifted students vary by state and local district.  Generally, aptitude tests are administered once, or very infrequently.  However, scholars of educational testing point out that a test-taker's scores on any two tests may vary.  With children, the effects may be more dramatic; indeed, their test scores may be particularly unreliable.

I don't need a fancy psychometrician to tell me that.  When I first took an armed forces aptitude test, I scored okay.  Then, after a few semesters in college, a bit of algebra, some critical thinking, and enhanced language skills, my brain was energized.  I retook the test and scored about 25 points higher.  This is because my brain's synaptic connections were finally flourishing in college. 

Beyond consistency, there's an even more fundamental issue with the validity of tests, administered infrequently, that purport to identify the gifted amongst us: our brains!  It was once thought that after early-stage development, they don't change much.  That would probably make analyzing the results of tests easier and pigeonholing students – indefinitely – more convenient for overwrought educators.  But oh, dear – there's a slight complication: a wondrous thing called neuroplasticity, which has gained acceptance in the scientific community.  Essentially, it is the capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change.  Synaptic connections are dynamically configured in response to new thoughts and sensory stimulation.  When we exercise our brains, we increase our learning capacity.  Eventually, we actually get smarter.

If we are to devote more public funds to gifted education while avoiding the potential pitfalls of elitism, then we need to continually improve the identification process.  Neuroplasticity argues strongly for recurrent testing. 

Since our brains can change in such remarkable ways, our giftedness status can change.  Perhaps this is why luminaries who revolutionized our knowledge on topics ranging from medicine to the universe, or invented products and services that enhance our lives, weren't always considered "gifted."  Just a few of the people who underperformed at some point in formal school settings include Newton, Edison, Einstein, Churchill, Sir John Gurdon, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates.  There are many more.

Given that part of the rationale for increasing funding for gifted education is so these students can make contributions that benefit society at large, it also makes sense to broaden the definition of giftedness.  Traits like motivation, creativity, and leadership make a big difference in the real world, as witnessed by the above list of luminaries who transformed our society with their ideas, entrepreneurship, and inventions.

What strikes me is how motivated these leaders became.  It's an apt cliché that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, suggesting that motivation and dedication may be the greatest gifts of all.  Yet motivation is rarely included in definitions of giftedness.  A robust gifted education program, ultimately dedicated to bettering society, must recognize these traits as part of the giftedness spectrum. 

Unfortunately, many schools acquiesce to administratively simple notions that giftedness is a fixed phenomenon.  This mindset may be more appropriate for emphasizing grade-level proficiency and ensuring that no child is left behind.

Insofar as the goal of gifted education is to harness inventive and intelligent minds that will disproportionately contribute to society's well-being, we need to recognize the magnificent malleability of intelligence wrought by our brains' neuroplasticity.  This means more flexibility and frequency of tests that measure a broader array of characteristics, including those shared by innovators and entrepreneurs whose plasticity of giftedness enabled them to make our lives better.

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