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The Role of Standardized Intelligence Measures in Testing for Giftedness

Originally prepared by: Greg Machek (fall 2003)
Revised: spring 2004

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Issues Surrounding the Use of IQ Tests
Multi-dimensional Assessment Procedure
Additional Tips for Parents 
The Bottom Line 

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The purpose of this article is to acquaint parents to some of the salient issues that revolve around the use of intelligence tests in gifted education placement decisions. Readers are encouraged to first visit the Hot Topic, Individually Administered Intelligence Tests for a specific review of the history, characteristics, and administration process of individualized IQ tests. The current article will explain some of the pros and cons regarding the use of individually administered intelligence tests, how IQ tests fit into the broader assessment of giftedness, and some tips for parents who may have a child that is undergoing such an assessment.

Issues Surrounding the Use of IQ Tests
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Intelligence tests have encountered criticism from some. For example, minority and economically disadvantaged students tend to score lower than other students and, consequently, are often underrepresented in gifted and talented programs.

Further, some critics charge that the current, widely used, IQ tests are not guided by a plausible theory of how the brain actually operates and do not accurately measure more contemporary ideas of what "intelligence" actually is. Indeed, some feel that an expanded view of intelligence should guide the testing process (e.g. Plucker, 1998). An example of such an expanded view would be Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences (Gardner, 1983). Gardner's theory has gained a lot of momentum in the last twenty years. It proposes the existence of at least eight distinct areas in which a student may be particularly adept. Proponents of this theory like the way that it widens the net in terms of identifying more areas in which a student may be talented and, so, in how many different children might be identified. This has particular implications for the identification of some minority groups who traditionally have been under-identified with more conventional approaches. Critics of Gardner's theory contend that it has not been thoroughly validated through statistical measures. For a more in depth look at contemporary and newly emerging conceptions of Intelligence, see the Hot Topic Intelligence Theory and Gifted Education.

Another major issue is the inconsistent use of these tests. Some school districts rely heavily, or even exclusively, on standardized IQ test scores to identify giftedness, yet other districts may use a multidimensional procedure that views test scores as only one piece of a much larger picture of a child's talents. Indeed, opponents of "IQ-only" identification point out that these tests may assess only a narrow range of ability, neglecting a child's strengths in other areas, such as spatial reasoning or nonacademic talents.

Still, such tests have their merits. Individually administered tests, such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, Third Edition (WISC-III) and the Stanford-Binet, Fourth Edition (SB-IV) (Note: newer versions of each of theses scales have recently been published), have been researched and analyzed to a great extent. While they do not lend themselves perfectly to some views of intelligence, they have historically been fairly good predictors of school achievement (expected "ability"). These tests are highly reliable - they provide similar results if taken, say, several months apart - and they have been studied and refined over many years or decades with thousands of children. So, intelligence tests can, and do, provide valuable information regarding a child's abilities and, despite some criticism, they are still widely used to make placement decisions for gifted, as well as learning disabled and intellectually challenged students. Because they have been standardized and researched to a great deal, they are often seen as adding a degree of accountability to the identification process.

For some, having one standardized score from a highly researched and used instrument may make decision-making an easier, less relative process. Further, their solid statistical properties have probably led to their use in decisions where accountability issues and government funding are at stake. As we will see next, however, IQ tests should always be considered in the context of a larger, more thorough, process of consideration.

Multi-dimensional Assessment Procedure
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Indeed, being able to look at just one number would surely simplify the selection process. However, today, and in the past, most responsible decisions are not made using only one score from one particular instrument. Even in the first half of the 20th century, one of the founders of gifted education, Leta Hollingworth, emphasized the collection and examination of various sources of information when making decisions about giftedness (Greenberg & Bruner, 1941, as cited in Klein, 2000).

More than ever, current testing philosophy emphasizes the importance of using a variety of assessment measures that may tap into talents that intelligence tests, alone, do not address. Such a "multi-dimensional" process is also driven by the many ways in which a child may be seen as exceptional. For example, here is a federal definition of what makes a student exceptional:

Children and youth with outstanding talent perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment. These children and youth exhibit high performance capability in the intellectual, creative, and/ or artistic areas, possess an unusual leadership capacity. Or excel on specific academic fields. They require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the schools. Outstanding talents are present in children and youth from all cultural backgrounds, across all economic strata, and in all areas of human endeavor. (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1993).

Likewise, many states have their own definitions that are equally broad. For example, this is how Indiana lists the different areas in which a child can be identified as gifted:

IC 20-10.1-5.1 - Chapter 5.1. Education Programs for High Ability Students
IC 20-10.1-5.1-1 Sec. 1. As used in this chapter, "domain" includes the following areas of aptitude and talent: (1) General intellectual. (2) General creative. (3) Specific academic. (4) Technical and practical arts.(5) Visual and performing arts. (6) Interpersonal. (Indiana Department of Education [IDOE], 2002)

You can most likely find your state's definition, along with relevant legal codes, on the Internet or by contacting your state's department of education.

The above definitions make clear the need to use a variety of techniques to assess the many ways in which a child may exhibit advanced abilities. Jerome Sattler, a leader in testing issues, notes that a typical system for identifying gifted children would most likely include parent and teacher reports of the child's behavior, a review of her creative work, direct observation of the child by a professional like a trained school psychologist, and standardized tests (Sattler, 1992).

After his teacher or parent has identified a particular student, the student will likely participate in some or all of the assessment procedures listed above. Although only a part of the overall assessment process, individually administered IQ tests still carry some weight in the decision making process.

Additional Tips for Parents
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Parents Rights Regarding Educational Records

Because of concerns regarding student record-keeping practices, the federal government enacted the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in 1974. The aim of this law is to ensure that parents and guardians have access to their child's educational records and that schools do not give out information to others without their permission permission. Failure by the school to abide by these guidelines can result in the school's loss of federal funding. Under FERPA, families have a legal right to amend information they believe is untrue as stated in their child's file. There is also an appeals and hearing process if parents and the school disagree.

Further, school personnel have a responsibility to explain the results of your child's assessment in a timely manner and in a way that is understandable. For example, if your local school psychologist uses technical jargon with which you are not familiar, you have every right to ask for and expect a clarification.

State and Local Regulations

Currently, children that are identified as gifted do not enjoy the same level of assurances in regards to specialized assessment and programming as children with disabilities. However, it is important to check with your local school district to see what provisions for gifted education may be in place through local or state policies. For example, Pennsylvania stands out as a rather progressive state in the identification and education of gifted students. Their state code for the assessment and education of gifted students closely parallels the rights and services for children with identified disabilities. Similarly, different schools or school districts may have adopted their own policy on how to best identify and educate gifted students.

Tips on Advocating for Your Child

Parents are often the strongest advocates for their children’s education. Many times educators will approach parents about the possibility of assessing their child for giftedness. Other times parents may feel that their child may be intellectually or academically exceptional and believe that access to gifted education services would be appropriate. In both instances, parent should consider some basic suggestions about testing.

First, parents should be patient with the assessment process. Often, the school will incorporate parental input when deliberating a child’s admittance into gifted programming. Even if this does not occur, realize the amount of data that school personnel are trying to sift through in an effort to be fair about such decisions. This amount of information and the variety of people involved make it necessary to be patient with the process. It will be difficult to not want to push the process along, especially since your child’s education is at stake. However, strong advocacy can feel like strong demands from the school’s point of view, creating an atmosphere in which each side tends to see the other as an obstacle to be avoided, and the true objective, the best interest of the student, is compromised.

Second, parents may decide to have their child evaluated by a professional outside of the school system. This may be because they feel that the school is being unresponsive to their child’s needs, or that the process would take too long if done through the school system. In such cases, parents should consider the qualifications of the testing psychologist. Although various learning centers and educational assessment companies can be found in most metropolitan areas, these may only provide basic test results at high cost. Parents are left on their own to explain to the meaning of the results to school administrators. Instead, look for licensed psychologists that specialize in working with children and understand the issues and procedures involved in identifying gifted students. Other good resources for testing services are local universities that may provide such services at significantly reduced cost.

When approaching third party professionals for testing services, parents should notify school personnel about their intentions to assess their child’s strengths. Likewise, it is important to be up-front and honest with any third party professional so that they understand the exact reasons for the testing and are comfortable with relating test results to both the parents and school personnel.

Third, parents are encouraged to ask questions about the testing process. In addition to helping keep parents informed, having answers to these questions will put parents at ease, which will be sensed by their child. The person administering the test will also realize firsthand parents’ personal involvement in the process, which can facilitate the communication of results after the testing session is completed.

The Bottom Line
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Despite some criticisms and limitations of individually administered intelligence tests, they may play a valuable role in the identification of gifted individuals. No single assessment instrument or score should ever be relied upon for making such high stakes decisions. However, used as part of a comprehensive multi-faceted procedure, intelligence tests can still yield useful information. Most importantly, parents should not be afraid to ask questions about test administration and interpretation.

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Klein, A. G. (2000). Fitting the school to the child: The mission of Leta Stetter Hollingworth, founder of gifted education. Roeper Review, 23, 97-104.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Indiana Department of Education (IDOE), Indiana Code Online, Accessed 7/10/2003: http://www.state.in.us/legislative/ic/code/title20/ar10.1/ch5.1.html

Plucker, J. A. (1998). Is gifted education still viable? Education Week, 17, 33-34.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, (1993). National excellence: A case for developing America's talent. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Sattler, J. M. (1992). Assessment of children, third edition. Jerome M. Sattler, Publisher, Inc.: San Diego.

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