Is My Child Gifted?
The struggle to identify and serve advanced students in the age of competitive parenting.
Photo by Michael Ventura
At age 4, Parker Walsh* understood more about subatomic particles than most adults ever will. This was evident the day he engaged his nursery school teacher in an in-depth conversation about supercolliders. By the time he entered first grade at Arlington Science Focus School in 2009, Parker was able to explain DNA and gravity and was having passionate debates about the Big Bang Theory. At age 7, he developed his own language, complete with its own writing system and mathematical symbols. When his parents took him for an independent intelligence assessment a year later, his test scores on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children placed him in the “highly gifted” range—above the 99.9th percentile nationwide.
People like Parker who are gifted with a capital G—as in genius level—make up about 2 percent of the human population. At least that’s the general consensus among psychologists and academics. Admission to Mensa requires an IQ score in the 98th percentile, and kids who test above the 99.9th percentile qualify for the Davidson Institute’s Young Scholars program, a free national program for the “extremely gifted.”
But in public education, gifted carries a more liberal definition. In Arlington Public Schools, roughly 20 percent of students qualify for gifted instruction in at least one subject. In Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), about 19 percent of students are enrolled in the accelerated curriculum known as Advanced Academic Programs (AAP). In Falls Church City Public Schools, where the gifted program is called Academic and Creative Endeavors (ACE), the number of students deemed eligible is closer to 30 percent.
How do you know if your child is a candidate for gifted instruction? Test scores, not surprisingly, are a factor. Virginia schools use nationally normed tests such as the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT) and the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) to assess students’ critical, analytical and creative thinking skills, and identify those who might benefit from taking it up a notch. (The grade level at which these screenings are administered varies by school district.)
But test scores aren’t the only criteria that come into play. There are also un-testable qualities, such as a student’s ability to hyper-focus on a particular topic, make unusual connections, take initiative in creative problem solving or comprehend sophisticated humor. Sometimes signs of higher intellect are spotted by an observant teacher. Other times, parents initiate a conversation and ask school officials for a formal assessment.
Cheryl McCullough, the gifted services supervisor for Arlington Public Schools (APS) and president of the Virginia Association for the Gifted, describes the identification process as holistic: “I want to know more than just data points. I want to know how this child is thinking critically and creatively at a higher level.”
Even the National Association for Gifted Children in Washington, D.C., is equivocal in its definition: “Giftedness, intelligence, and talent are fluid concepts and may look different in different contexts and cultures,” the nonprofit says on its website. “Even within schools you will find a range of beliefs about the word ‘gifted,’ which has become a term with multiple meanings and much nuance.”
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Arlington resident Lara Doyle remembers being pleased when her son Ben was formally identified as gifted during his first-grade year at K.W. Barrett Elementary. “He’s always asked a lot of questions and really wanted to understand complex things in a deep way,” she says, noting that Ben was already reading graphic novels about the major world wars and asking questions about geopolitics at age 6. “He wanted to talk to me about them all day, and I was like, ‘Ugh, I just want to go to bed,’ ” she jokes.
But not all parents have the same reaction when that letter comes home. Michelle Evans* says she was surprised when her daughter was flagged for gifted evaluation at the end of her kindergarten year at Arlington Science Focus. Though Evans agreed to have her daughter evaluated, she declined the offer to have her child skip a grade. “There’s no way she would have been mature enough to handle that,” Evans says. “She may be an early reader and a good student, but gifted is an overstatement.”
Evans isn’t the only one who feels the label is prone to hyperbole. “The idea that everyone is gifted is a beautiful sentiment, but a fundamental misunderstanding of what gifted education is designed to do,” says Beth Green, Falls Church City Public Schools enrichment coordinator for grades K-2. “It means you have needs that aren’t being met within your classroom. It does a disservice to the kids who are truly gifted to say, ‘Oh, everyone is gifted.’ ”
Other educators take a similar view. “I was out at dinner with a bunch of girlfriends last week,” says an APS employee who asked not to be identified, “and every single mom at that table had a kid in gifted services. I know their kids—they’re lovely, but they’re not all gifted.”
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The student who is truly gifted isn’t always as conspicuous as one might expect. The girl who sits in the front of the class and raises her hand for every question may be driven, but is not necessarily gifted—whereas the one who calls no attention to herself but is silently bored out of her mind is often the one who would most benefit from an accelerated curriculum.
“Gifted kids do not always present in the classroom as the smartest, most eager learners,” Catherine Brighton, an associate dean in the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, observed in a recent article in the school’s daily online news bulletin, UVAToday. Armed with a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Dept. of Education, Brighton and her colleagues are researching disparities in gifted identification, particularly among minorities, through a project called “Kaleidoscope.”
“Very bright children are often bored in traditional public school settings,” she added. “This boredom can manifest in gifted students as off-task behaviors, disengagement with the learning or general school apathy.”
Nancy Sharkey, an Arlington parent who holds a doctorate degree in education from Harvard, says there’s a well-documented Pygmalion effect at play in our nation’s public schools: “The kids who show up well dressed and know how to read get more attention and are clustered in the smart math group; the kids who don’t fit the part get put in the back of the class.”
Sharkey says she’s watched this disparity play out in her own two sons, who are entering sixth and eighth grade, respectively, this fall. Though their standardized test scores have been mostly identical at each grade marker, her older son was quickly identified as gifted in four subjects while the younger one was not. It wasn’t until the end of her younger son’s fifth-grade year (after he performed well in a higher intensity math class) that he was pegged as gifted in math.
“Schools identify kids who are intrinsically motivated—the kids who are very demonstrative about their abilities,” Sharkey says. “My younger son is the kind of laid-back kid who floats to wherever the expectation is. It’s almost more important to identify the kids who don’t raise their hands and say ‘Ooh ooh, me me’—because they won’t seek out the extra enrichment, whereas the self-directed kids of the world will. But at the end of the day, what my younger son would benefit from is more challenging material, not a label.”
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In the age of competitive parenting, however, there are those who care plenty about the gifted label. It’s not uncommon to find parents petitioning schools to get their kids on the gifted track—the thinking being that their students’ talents have simply gone undetected, or that their kids will rise to the challenge if given the chance.
“Parents are pretty savvy,” says Ann Dolin, a former Fairfax County teacher and founder of EC Tutoring in Fairfax. “They realize if they lobby hard enough on the student’s behalf, [the student] will probably get in.”
Sometimes parent advocacy can shed light on the brilliant kid who is quietly flying under the radar. (After two years of regular classroom instruction at Arlington Science Focus, Parker Walsh was finally flagged for gifted instruction in math after his parents submitted his outside test results to the school. Another year went by before APS determined that he was also verbally gifted.)
But parental intervention can also backfire. “I’ve worked with parents who think that their children are struggling because they’re bored or uninspired, so they push their children into a gifted program,” Dolin says, “only to find that their child’s strengths aren’t what’s appreciated in the classroom.”
Patricia Velkoff, a clinical psychologist with decades of experience in Northern Virginia, says that pushing a student to the next level can be especially risky if his or her academic scores are only slightly north of average.
“Children who perform near the bottom of the GT [gifted and talented] peer group are truly not well served by GT and AAP programs,” Velkoff cautions. “These children struggle—and sometimes fail—to keep up. Their belief in their own intelligence can suffer,” whereas the same kids would feel “highly competent” in a general classroom setting.
Being identified as gifted can also have social consequences, especially if a student is moved away from his long-standing peer group and forced to adjust to a new classroom, or even—as is the case for certain Fairfax County AAP students—an entirely new school.
“Some children suffer socially,” Velkoff says. “Established friendships become difficult to maintain, simply due to a lack of contact and shared experiences. The [former] peer group may also have a belief that GT children look down on them.”
That’s partly what happened to Jason White*, now 27, who qualified for Haycock Elementary School’s advanced academics (then known as GT) program in the late 1990s.
“GT is socially isolating,” says Jason’s mom, Rebecca*, recalling how her son’s switch to GT exacted a sudden and dramatic shift in his social circles. “He grew up with these kids who were his best friends. [Once he moved to GT] he could physically see them in school but couldn’t interact with them. It was like he was on the outside looking in. No one tells you in advance about the incidence of depression in kids who are in the program.”
Jason came home from his first day of third grade in the GT program and couldn’t sleep. Then he started having nightmares. “In retrospect, I think it was because he went from 0 to 60, from [being] a smart kid among peers to a place where he was struggling just to keep up,” his mom says.
With the help of tutors and a therapist, Jason stuck with the GT program and made it through Longfellow Middle School with a B average. When he got to McLean High School he was diagnosed with an emotional disability that nearly caused him to unravel. He pared down his course load, graduated on time, went on to earn a master’s degree in psychology and now teaches at a charter school in D.C. But he can’t say he’d do it all again the same way.
“The GT program was good for some people, but I have ADHD, anxiety and probably some other learning disabilities,” Jason says. “It made me feel like an idiot and a failure for not being able to do what the other students did. I became very self-conscious and developed social anxiety. And yet I was always pretty ebullient. I hid it well from teachers and counselors for the most part, so I just got lumped into the ‘lazy/oppositional’ pile.
“I think the program and its proponents meant well,” he says, “but at the end of the day it is another iteration of the do-do-do-achieve-achieve-achieve mentality of the affluent D.C. suburbs, where the value of doing well replaces being well. It’s a thresher.”
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Photo by Michael Ventura
Educators now know that no student is gifted in all areas. “It used to be that a gifted kid was [seen as] someone who could do everything perfectly,” says Rich Weinfeld, executive director of the Weinfeld Education Group in Silver Spring. But the paradigm has shifted since Weinfeld first started teaching elementary school in 1975. “Now we look for the gifted abilities or strengths possessed by different learners.”
In fact, there may be dichotomies at play. For example, a student with off-the-charts computer mapping abilities may be an average reader with poor fine motor skills that result in illegible penmanship. The child who can do Algebra at age 10 may not have the emotional maturity to avoid a meltdown when she gets a problem wrong.
“Perfectionism is rampant among gifted kids,” says Wendy Cohen, who taught gifted students at K.W. Barrett Elementary for 20 years before retiring this past spring. “They believe that everything should come easily. So when something doesn’t, they believe that they’re not smart or they give up.”
In these instances it’s important for parents to model perseverence, Cohen says, and to send a message to their kids that it’s okay to make mistakes.
Today’s pedagogy also recognizes that giftedness can come hand-in-hand with learning disabilities or developmental disorders—a combination that’s referred to in academic and clinical circles as “twice-exceptional” (2e).
“There’s this myth that I have a classroom filled with well-behaved, rule-following children,” says Green, the K-2 enrichment coordinator for Falls Church City Public Schools. “But if that’s what my classroom looks like, I’m not doing it right. A lot of times [students] have odd obsessions and strange behaviors that go along with their gift. Some may or may not be on the autism spectrum or have other special needs. Part of what I do is to serve these kids who really need a place where they can be themselves.”
Green says gifted children may have difficulty prioritizing their work, in that they tend to fixate on topics they find interesting and neglect what seems boring. That’s the case for Nathan*, a sixth-grader at Haycock Elementary this fall. He was identified as gifted early on, but he also has an executive-functioning challenge that makes him completely disorganized, like an absentminded professor. “He’s bright, but he’s just so spacey,” says his mom. “It’s exhausting. Sometimes I tell him, ‘I’m tired of being your frontal lobe.’”
Tim*, an Arlington eighth-grader, has always been an exceptional reader. As an elementary school student he could draw clever analogies, make mature references and hold sophisticated literary conversations with adults. But he was overwhelmed by any assignment that required him to write.
“He wanted to read Shakespeare, but he literally had a hard time writing a sentence,” says his mom. “It was excruciating for him to put pen to paper.” After years of struggling, Tim was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability that makes the physical task of holding a pen and writing down thoughts difficult. He’s since explored alternative writing strategies, such as dictation, in an attempt to overcome those hurdles.
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Being the parent of a gifted child isn’t all roses. Some parents say it can be isolating and tough to find empathy and support among their peers. “It’s easy to talk to people about my daughter, who has dyslexia. No one balks at that,” says a Falls Church mom. “But it’s hard to talk to people about my son who’s gifted. They roll their eyes, even though his struggles are just as real as hers.”
Any utterance of the word “gifted” is perceived as a humble brag, agrees an exasperated Arlington mother. “My mom friends will talk all day about the girl drama at school or which teacher did what…but no one dares bring up the subject of what’s going on in the gifted services program.”
Frustrated by this taboo, Beth Dowd, whose son attends Thomas Jefferson Middle School, created the Arlington Gifted Google listserv (now 350 members strong) as a place where area parents can post questions and vent their frustrations. “There’s an avalanche of information about gifted education online, but very little of it is local,” explains Dowd, who co-chairs APS’s parent-run Gifted Services Advisory Committee (GSAC). “I wanted a place where Arlington parents could ask for advice and talk openly about parenting gifted kids without being judged.”
Josh Turner, also a co-chair of the GSAC for the past four years (his term ended this year), says that gifted instruction is often viewed as a luxury or an extravagance. “It’s easy to look at the gifted label as an unadulterated good. People assume you’re smart, capable and have a bright future,” says Turner, whose daughter is in the gifted program at Oakridge Elementary. But gifted kids, like all kids, need to be engaged. “If you don’t adjust to that you can lose them.”
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Navigating the local options for gifted students can be confounding. In Fairfax County elementary schools, accelerated learners (students who are rated as “Level 4” based on their CogAT scores in second grade) are grouped together in specialized classrooms—or in some cases, entirely separate “center” schools—that teach an advanced (AAP) curriculum. Some critics see this segregated model as a form of intellectual elitism. Supporters say it’s no different from cherry-picking the most talented athletes to play travel sports.
In Arlington, the delivery models for gifted instruction can vary from one school to the next—a reality that frustrates many parents and educators. Says one APS elementary school resource teacher: “Each school seems to be its own fiefdom, and they all seem to delight in their own specialness.”
Some APS schools offer weekly small-group pull-out sessions in which gifted kids leave their regular classrooms and meet with the school RTG (resource teacher for the gifted) for 45 minutes to explore a topic in greater depth, whether that means reading a novel and dissecting its themes with supplemental research, or tackling logic puzzles involving complicated math. Some parents of gifted students say it’s the best 45 minutes of their kid’s week.
The problem, says APS gifted services supervisor McCullough, is that gifted children aren’t just gifted for 45-minute stints: “Their [regular] teachers need to know how to teach to their ability” on a daily basis.
That’s why McCullough and others have been advocating for more Arlington schools to adopt a “push-in” model, whereby the RTGs co-plan lessons with classroom teachers to offer enriched curriculum in the classroom setting. This approach involves “scaffolding” students who need help catching up, she explains, while simultaneously accelerating those who are ready to move forward.
Kevin Trainor, an RTG who’s worked with fellow teachers to introduce a push-in model at McKinley Elementary, explains the rationale: “It doesn’t make sense for me to be the only one who can address our gifted students’ needs. The teachers participated in the training, we collaborated on the lesson plans, and now there are close to 50 kids in grade 3 alone who are getting an advanced math curriculum. When we stopped worrying about identifying who’s gifted, we were able to agree on who needs harder math more easily.”
In other words, he says, taking the “gifted” label out of the equation allowed teachers to better focus on individual students’ needs.
Thomas Cooper*, whose son is a gifted student at McKinley, sees the push-in approach as a win-win that exposes a larger section of the school population to enriched curriculum. “[My son] needs to learn how to function in the real world,” he says. “That means being with kids who have all sorts of gifts, talents and experiences. It also means working through tasks he might find boring.”
Several Arlington schools now use a combination of pull-out and push-in lessons. So do Falls Church City public schools like Thomas Jefferson Elementary, where Patrick Vennebush’s 9-year-old twins, Alex and Eli, are entering fourth grade.
Vennebush, who writes math textbooks for a living, says the level of rigor has been calibrated just right for his boys. “We really like that they get a lot of extra puzzles and challenges through their enrichment classes,” he says. “They’re not getting pushed through the curriculum faster; they’re getting an enriched look at the math that’s on their level.”
Still, some school officials worry privately that the level of customization needed to make the push-in scenario a success—particularly in the face of growing class sizes—isn’t feasible or sustainable.
“Parents are looking for a private-school education in a public school setting, and we’re just not equipped to provide that,” says one APS administrator.
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Bo Davis lived in Arlington for more than 20 years, but last year he and his wife moved their family to Falls Church. Their three kids now attend Haycock Elementary, a Level 4 AAP “center” school for gifted students that’s part of the Fairfax County public school system. “I was unhappy with the way gifted services were being implemented at APS,” Davis says. “I am a firm believer that if kids are not challenged in school, they’ll get turned off to it.
“While APS is focusing on closing the achievement gap—making sure no kid gets left behind—they’ve dropped the ball on the kids who are on the high end of the spectrum,” Davis contends. “This isn’t something we did lightly. But in the span of four weeks, my younger son [now a rising fourth-grader] went through the same math curriculum that it took our old school [in Arlington] a year to teach.”
Fairfax County’s AAP framework does have its drawbacks. Detractors note that many AAP classes assign more than 30 students to a single teacher. Kids attending AAP “center” schools often have to be bused far away from their neighborhoods and social circles. The “center school” concept has also been criticized for eliminating intellectual diversity in neighborhood schools as the smartest kids are siphoned off and sent elsewhere.
Which is partly why FCPS, in recent years, has implemented a “Local Level 4” system, whereby certain neighborhood schools now offer the AAP curriculum to qualified students inhouse. Chesterbrook Elementary in McLean is one such school.
“We are a school-based [AAP] center, which means we take only kids from our geographic area,” explains Chesterbrook’s principal, Bob Fuqua. “Our homerooms are heterogeneously grouped, but we have at least one Level 4 class for each of the core subjects in grades 3 through 6.”
In the future, Arlington’s approach to gifted instruction could end up looking a lot more like Fairfax County’s if a March 2016 recommendation to the Arlington County School Board gains any traction.
“Given the complex demands placed on teachers in today’s classrooms, perhaps it is time APS considered a different model for delivery of gifted services,” APS’s Gifted Services Advisory Committee (GSAC) stated in a memorandum to the school board. “Outside of a handful of select elementary schools, GSAC sees no evidence of consistent delivery of gifted services. With so much in flux given the current capacity crunch, perhaps the time is right to consider gifted centers. Another alternative would be to borrow an idea from Fairfax County’s Advanced Academics model and implement a ‘school within a school’ concept—similar to their [Level 4 system].”
What happens after elementary school? Local middle and high schools continue to provide various forms of accelerated instruction, including honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes. But some gifted students and their families feel the offerings fall short, even in public schools that are ranked among the best in the nation. That’s why Parker Walsh opted for a year of homeschooling in lieu of attending Williamsburg Middle School last year. “He was doing all his learning outside of the classroom, so what was he going to school for?” his mom says.
Parker spent his seventh-grade year taking online classes from various gifted resources and major universities, but the experience wasn’t all positive. While he felt challenged academically, he says he missed having daily interaction with his peers. This fall he’ll be attending BASIS, an independent school in McLean where the experimental curriculum caters to each student’s individual needs, regardless of age or grade level.
Joining him at BASIS is Taylor*, a former Swanson Middle School student whose 99.9th percentile IQ score qualified him to become a Davidson Scholar.
Despite his quantifiable genius, “[Taylor] is your classic underachiever,” his mom confides. “He’s compliant. He does everything that’s asked of him, but nothing more. And he’s not mature enough to understand that that attitude is contributing to his unhappiness.” Her hope is that a small private school will challenge her son in ways that public school could not. “I think Swanson’s a great school,” she says, “but when it comes to my kid, his needs aren’t being met.”
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What does “gifted” mean, how is it manifested and which academic setting is best for the advanced student? In the end, these are pretty subjective questions.
“Whether or not your child is identified for gifted services is not the be all, end all, says Carol Horn, the AAP coordinator for grades K-12 in Fairfax County. “It’s more important to do what’s best for your child. I’m not telling parents whether or not their child is gifted. I’m saying, ‘Let’s find the level of service that’s best.’ That’s part of why I label the service rather than the child.
“Giftedness in children is potential,” Horn adds, paraphrasing the philosophy of A. Harry Passow, whose pioneering research in the 1950s and ’60s changed the field of gifted education. “Whether or not that potential is developed depends on the match between the child and the type of nurturance that’s provided.”
On the subject of nurturance, Brighton, the UVA researcher, points out that impressions of intelligence can be deceiving. Kids who arrive in kindergarten knowing their ABCs may have gotten a head start, but that doesn’t mean they’re gifted. Conversely, one can’t assume that kids who aren’t reciting the alphabet at age 5 are not gifted. “Children from impoverished backgrounds…come to their first formal schooling experience having been exposed to 30 million fewer words than their privileged peers,” Brighton noted in UVAToday. “And sometimes a delay is just part of the developmental process. Albert Einstein was 4 years old before he spoke and age 7 before he could read.”
A parent’s job, no doubt, is to be his or her child’s best advocate. Sometimes that means petitioning a school, seeking outside testing or considering instructional alternatives when a student seems academically stagnant.
At the same time, experts caution parents to remember the endgame and what’s ultimately at stake. “Some parents invest in the success of their children in ways that crush their children out of the equation,” says Velkoff, the psychologist. “The gifted label can become a badge [of honor] for the parents. But sooner or later, the kids know that they are becoming success surrogates for their parents, which leads to an unbalanced dance. Rather than focusing on their talents and passions, they focus on getting adult accolades.”
Rebecca White*, whose son, Jason, struggled as a gifted student, offers her own perspective in hindsight. “I still don’t know whether or not we made the right decision,” she says. “Knowing [what I know now], I probably wouldn’t have put [Jason] in GT and put those pressures on an already high-strung kid. Maybe he wouldn’t have been in crisis so much of the time. I would rather have had him happy.”
Arlington Public Schools Gifted Services
Arlington Gifted Google Listserv
Cognitive Assessment at George Mason University
Davidson Institute for Talent Development
Fairfax County Association for the Gifted
Fairfax County Public Schools Advanced Academic Programs
Falls Church City Public Schools Academic and Creative Endeavors Program (search site using keyword “ACE”)
Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth
National Association for Gifted Children
Summer Institute for the Gifted
Northern Virginia public schools offer different forms of gifted instruction, but the process for identifying eligible students is fairly similar from one school district to the next. A screening test is usually administered to all students in a particular grade to identify those who might benefit from an accelerated curriculum. Students may also be recommended for gifted services by a teacher, parent, community member (such as a coach or music instructor) or even by the student himself. This starts the formal process of evaluation by the school and its gifted resources staff.
During the evaluation, data such as test scores from the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT), the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) and the Stanford-Binet intelligence test (now used by Falls Church City Public Schools) are considered, along with classroom work samples and feedback from parents and teachers in the form of behavioral questionnaires.
While a student may be identified as gifted at any age, many schools push to have kids identified by the time they’re in third grade. If a teacher suspects giftedness as early as kindergarten, the school might use an individually administered test, such as the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test (KBIT), as a baseline for evaluation. Fairfax County Public Schools publishes a timeline that promises a three-month turnaround on gifted assessments, but in Arlington some APS parents have reported waiting up to a year for a verdict on their child’s status.
Parents may also opt to have their child privately tested and submit those results to their school for consideration. A basic IQ test usually takes a little less than two hours and runs about $350, according to Anita Auerbach, founder and director of Commonwealth Psychological Associates in McLean, whereas a full evaluation (which may be designed to identify gifted areas as well as potential learning disabilities) involves two half-days of testing, a complete history from parents and a clinical interview with the child, producing nearly 200 pages of data and doctor’s evaluations. Cost: about $3,000.
Adrienne Wichard-Edds has previously written about clinical anxiety, running culture and the psychology of giving for Arlington Magazine.
*Some names changed for privacy