Monday, November 12, 2018

What's so controversial about testing for gifted services?

Most schools require IQ testing when students are referred for gifted education. They typically must achieve a cut-off score (usually 130 or higher) and meet other criteria defined by the district to qualify for gifted services. Sounds straightforward... right? 

So why, then, is IQ testing so controversial?

Intellectual, or cognitive testing is a considerable undertaking. It can seem like a perilous choice - as if an evaluation, an IQ score, a potential diagnosis could define and somehow change your child. You know your child - you have lived with his strengths, weaknesses, quirks, struggles and amazing moments of brilliance. Yet, could results from this snapshot in time diminish who he is - and what you know to be true?

Some parents worry that testing will be conducted incorrectly or that their child will be misdiagnosed or mislabeled. Others plead with their schools to administer testing, waiting patiently for their child to qualify for gifted services. Parents who homeschool or whose children attend private schools question whether testing would provide any benefit. Many are uncertain about what tests are appropriate, when an evaluation should take place, and whether they should agree to testing at all. 

The following are some of the most common concerns and questions associated with evaluations for gifted identification:

1. How is formal IQ testing different from classroom achievement tests? 

Individualized IQ testing is administered by a highly trained clinical or school psychologist on a one-to-one basis with your child. The standardized tests used are the Wechsler or sometimes the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales. Despite some inherent cultural biases, these are validated and reliable tests that measure a range of abilities. They differ from the paper-and-pencil (or computerized) group screening tests administered in class that typically assess math and language arts skills, and which tend to measure achievement rather than aptitude. Psychologists rarely provide individualized IQ testing without obtaining detailed information about a child's developmental, family, social, behavioral, and academic history. 

Most schools provide testing with a school psychologist available within the district. When this service is not an option, some parents seek an evaluation from a licensed psychologist outside of school. Ideally, psychologists should have experience evaluating children who are gifted and who also may have learning disabilities, as twice exceptionalities can complicate test interpretation. Referrals can be found by checking with your child's school counselor or gifted education department, your child's pediatrician, or graduate programs at local universities that provide training in gifted education, or school, educational or clinical psychology. 

2. What purpose does testing serve other than identifying an IQ score?

Individualized IQ tests provide a wealth of information about a child's skills, strengths, weaknesses, and approach to a demanding situation. IQ tests are comprised of subtests, each measuring different cognitive abilities. The scores on these subtests are combined to generate the overall IQ score. However, the subtest scores often provide the most useful information regarding your child's relative strengths, weaknesses, and behaviors. Psychologists who specialize in testing gifted or twice exceptional children also may approach the test administration and interpretation differently than they would with a child who has an average IQ. (For an excellent overview, see Lovecky's recent article.)

Many psychologists use scores from the General Ability Index (GAI) on the recent Wechsler Scales when evaluating a gifted child. This index combines the scores from the Verbal Comprehension and Perceptual Reasoning subtests. It does not include scores from tests involving working memory and processing speed, which appear unrelated to gifted and higher level thinking. For many gifted children, the GAI is a more accurate reflection of intellectual depth, reasoning skills, and academic needs than the Full Scale IQ Score.

A psychologist learns a lot from how your child approaches the test.  An evaluation yields so much more than an IQ score - it provides valuable information about how your child approaches a new and challenging situation. Some behavioral questions that are considered during the evaluation include the following:

Is she conscientious and diligent? 

Does he become frustrated and give up easily? 

Is she cooperative and engaging, or timid and withdrawn? 

Is he quick to act, or does he think before responding? 

Is she haphazard and distractible? 

How are his planning and organizational skills?

Is her behavior age-appropriate?

Is he detail-oriented and obsessive? 

Does she seem confident, or is she reluctant to respond?

Parents and teachers often view these behavioral observations as the most insightful and informative aspect of the evaluation. Psychologists evaluate how your child responds to the testing situation, and these observations can affect how test results are interpreted and influence overall recommendations. For example, an anxious, highly cautious child may lose "time" on a subtest involving speed; as a result, the score on this subtest may not be an accurate reflection of this child's actual cognitive abilities and potential. This information would be included in the final report, and an interpretation of that particular subtest score would be tempered by effects of the child's behavior.

3. When is the best time to request an evaluation?

Most experts recommend testing between six and nine years of age. Although giftedness sometimes is identified in a very young child, clear signs of gifted abilities may not be evident due to a child's immaturity, asynchrony, or a reluctance to cooperate with the testing. On the other hand, some school districts discourage parents from requesting testing prior to second or third grade, and claim that children identified as gifted in kindergarten may "outgrow" their giftedness and "level out" later on. However, giftedness does not go away! High achievers may excel on group-based achievement tests; however, children who are identified with an IQ of 130 or higher do not stop being gifted. They may lose interest in school and stop achieving, but their abilities have not diminished.

4. Can the process actually harm your child?

A skilled psychologist will help your child feel comfortable and even have fun during the evaluation. Most of the tests are hands-on activities, and each subtest is stopped after several failed attempts, so your child should not feel overwhelmed or discouraged. Gifted children often enjoy the challenge of varied and sometimes demanding tasks that are quite different from routine classroom activities.

Since your child may be aware that she is being tested to qualify for gifted services, you will need to prepare her ahead of time by explaining the reasons for testing in a calm, relaxed manner, and then helping her to later understand what it means to gifted. How you and the psychologist communicate the results to your child is critical to helping her make sense of her abilities, strengths, areas that need attention, and how she differs from others.

5. What if we are disappointed in the results?

Typically, IQ scores fall within a range of possible scores. Depending on your child's mood, attention span, physical comfort level (e.g., if hungry or fatigued), and rapport with the psychologist, he could presumably obtain a slightly different score on another day.

There is always the possibility, though, that your child will not qualify for gifted services, will not achieve an IQ of 130 or above, will show evidence of some learning problems, or that the test will be invalid. If your child was unable to cooperate due to feeling ill or was too distracted (e.g., he was missing out on a class party) to offer his best performance, the results may not be an accurate reflection of his abilities. Testing can be offered again within a year, though (testing sooner than a year would be unreliable), and hopefully your child's teacher will provide some accommodations to address his learning needs - even without the gifted label.

Testing provides useful information

It is time to demystify cognitive testing. While it provides a snapshot in time, it also offers a fairly accurate measure of a range of abilities, skills, behaviors, strengths, and areas of struggle. That's it. There is nothing magical, overly complicated, or intentionally biased about it. Testing provides useful, detailed information that can offer guidance for both you and those educating your child.

Test results are best interpreted and communicated to you and to educators by a psychologist experienced with evaluating gifted children. Ideally, results and recommendations are utilized by educators in a flexible, open-minded, and creative manner, with a willingness to consider options such as acceleration, clustering and flexible ability grouping. Even if you homeschool or cyberschool your child, testing can provide a wealth of information. And greater understanding of your child's learning needs leads to more useful, informed decisions.

For more information about cognitive testing, please see the articles below:

What do IQ tests test?

The best-kept secret in gifted education: Above-level testing

Tests and assessments

This blog is part of the GHF Blog Hop on Tips, Advice and Help when having your Gifted Child Tested. To see more blogs, click on the following link.

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  1. What I found controversial about IQ testing is that each district seems to demand their own psychologist do the testing and will not accept testing done by any outside doctor, even from other qualified sources. I also have found that cutoffs for IQ vary in each school district according to the space they have that particular year. So one year a child may receive services but a year earlier they might not have due to changes in the school districts availability of space in their programs.

    1. Darlene, You highlight some very frustrating issues. It is unfortunate that your district excludes outside reports, and even more so, that they have an arbitrary cut-off based on "space" available in the "program." Gifted services should never be about a program, but about what each student needs on an individual basis.

  2. Love the thoroughness of this post, Gail. I'll know where to send parents who have these questions. Great topic for a blog hop!