Assessing gifted children is not like assessing any other type of child. I am often asked whether or not it matters if a psychologist or specialist who routinely evaluates children necessarily needs to have a working understanding of the complexities of gifted children, and each time I say, “Yes!” Unlike other populations of children, the test performances of gifted children on measures of cognitive abilities vary tremendously. Without getting too complicated, let me list some of the major dilemmas facing parents who wish to better understand their gifted child:
First, and foremost, in most cases we are “trying to measure a six foot tall person with a five foot ruler,” (Silverman). Too often, our IQ tests don’t sufficiently measure the true nature and extent of a gifted child’s capabilities. Examiners need to be sensitive to the limitations of tests on which a child does not reach a ceiling (point at which the number of errors a child makes dictates that the test be discontinued).
Second, the normal curve, or bell shaped curve on which our tests are based, is reliable within three standard deviations. Children on the outer extremes of the bell curve, i.e., IQ’s below 70 and above 130, are not being adequately “measured”, and with tests that do not allow for children to obtain higher IQ’s, we are simply left to guess what their true potential for academic success really is.
Thirdly, and perhaps most important to this topic, is the understanding and appreciation that gifted children are emotionally different as well as intellectually different. As Anna Marie Roeper (1982) said, “Gifted potential refers to a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and to transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences.” Giftedness also implies an asynchronous pattern of development in which children may experience uneven development across cognitive, social, physical, and emotional domains, and these differences may accentuate feeling out of step socially. When evaluators do not understand heightened emotional responses, sensitivities, and over-excitabilities (Dabrowski), at best they will miss what essentially makes a gifted individual. At worst, they will pathologize behaviors that are, in reality, part of the package of a gifted child. This is not to say that twice-exceptional children do not exist, as indeed they do. (Twice exceptional refers to gifted children who are challenged by learning differences, such as dyslexia or ADHD, etc.).
Another important factor to consider when testing gifted children is that they are routinely penalized by speed and working memory components of IQ tests. This is not to say that these tasks do not have a place, as they can tell us important information about the child. We must remember that in validation studies of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Third and Fourth Editions (WISC-III and WISC-IV), gifted students scored highest on measures of abstract verbal reasoning and knowledge, and poorest on measures of rote memory and processing speed. Experienced evaluators of the gifted will tease this out and help parents and teachers understand that to have slow processing speed in no way diminishes the fact that the child is gifted; he or she may simply need a word processor in their enrichment class!
When assessing a child for giftedness, the evaluator must be motivated to paint a portrait of the child as a learner while taking into consideration the unique cognitive, social and emotional traits of that child. The evaluator must be well-versed in many measurements and not take any Full Scale IQ score at face value. Of course, this is true for any child, but especially so for gifted children, who by their very nature are likely to present us with asynchronous profiles of development. And finally, any evaluator must be able to share the information obtained in a manner that is respectful, meaningful, and accurate so that the child can have his or her needs properly met through various forms of education, enrichment, differentiation, and accommodations.
Melissa M. King, M.Ed.