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FAQs about Giftedness

Seven Stupid Arguments Against Programs for the Gifted

Q. Who are the "profoundly intelligent"?

Profoundly intelligent young people are those with an exceptionally high level of intellectual precocity. While neither exceptionally high nor low intelligence can be determined only in terms of an intelligence quotient, an IQ score can be a useful index for identifying the intellectual potential of an individual by looking at the individual's "mental age" and comparing it to his/her "chronological age".

In terms of measurement, different tests produce different numbers. So, generally speaking, profoundly intelligent individuals are those individuals who have IQ’s that are at the 99.999% percentile.

It’s important to also note that, despite many stereotypes, profoundly intelligent young people come from all ethnic groups, races, economic levels, and geographic areas. Like other young people, the profoundly intelligent are unique individuals with varied and multifaceted traits:

  • Some of them demonstrate mastery in multiple domain areas; others excel in a single domain area.
  • Some of them have highly developed social skills; others have limited social skills.
  • Some of them are highly sensitive and suffer terribly from an unkind act or thoughtless remark; others are less affected.
  • Some of them are perfectionists; others are quite comfortable taking risks and making mistakes.
  • Some of them are extremely intense and appear to be hyperactive at times; others are not.
  • Some of them excel in their classes; others do not.
  • Some of them are both highly intelligent and learning disabled.
  • Many are highly verbal, highly mathematical, highly musical, highly athletic, highly inventive, and many excel in other areas.


Q. What are some of the characteristics of profoundly intelligent children?

While profoundly intelligent children are a diverse group of unique individuals, some of the characteristics they share in common are:
  • An extreme need for constant mental stimulation.
  • An ability to learn and process complex information rapidly.
  • A precocious ability to perceive essential elements and underlying structures and patterns in relationships and ideas.
  • A need to explore subjects in surprising depth, to understand the why and how as well as the what.
  • An insatiable curiosity; endless questions and inquiries about how things work.
  • A need for precision in thinking and expression. A student who answers questions with “that depends...” is your first clue of extreme intelligence.
  • An ability to focus intently on a subject of interest for long periods of time.
  • An inability to concentrate on a task that is not intellectually challenging, such as those that involve repetition or that present material in bite size pieces.
  • A propensity toward underachievement, particularly in females and adolescents who want to “fit in” with their classmates.

How Many

Q. How many profoundly intelligent young people are there? We don’t really know.

Statistically it is estimated that individuals with an IQ of 145+ appear in the population at a ratio of 1 in 1,000 and individuals with an IQ of 160+ appear in the population at a ratio of fewer than 1 in 10,000 and those with an IQ of 180+ appear in the population at a ratio of fewer than 1 in a million. Because the most commonly used IQ tests, including those listed in the Davidson Institute’s Test, Score and Portfolio Guide, have a ceiling of 159, it is difficult to determine how many individuals have IQ’s above 160.

Some researchers make the case that the actual incidence of such children in the population is demonstrably higher. Lewis Terman, author of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale (the first American IQ test), expressed a great deal of surprise when he conducted a major longitudinal study of gifted children in the early 1920s, and discovered that children above 170 IQ were "all out of proportion" to the numbers he had expected to find. Other researchers, clinicians, and educators, separated by a century of time and located in widely varying geographic locales, have also discovered an unexpectedly high incidence of exceptionally and profoundly intelligent children.

Some researchers have estimated that there may be six to 10 times as many children in the 160+ IQ range than previously thought (see Robinson, below). Finding these children, in part, seems to be a function of actually looking for them, as well as using a variety of formal and informal assessments that can measure the full range of their abilities.

IQ and Testing

Q. When and how should students be tested for giftedness?

The optimal age for assessment is between the ages of four and nine. In general, testing a child when he/she is younger can be more revealing than testing an older child. According to Kathi Kearney, "The older the child is when the test is administered, the less ‘room’ there is on the test itself to demonstrate advanced ability; thus, an older child’s score may not reflect the full extent of his giftedness."

When considering whether or not to have a child assessed, parents should determine the specific academic outcomes they hope to address through formal assessment. This will help both the tester and the family to select appropriate assessment instruments.

An IQ number alone does not provide adequate information about a student’s intellectual abilities. Other information that should be evaluated are samples of the student's work, as well as observations of the student's parents and teachers.

There are a variety of instruments available that assess intelligence and achievement. Many are listed in the Davidson Institute’s Test, Score, and Portfolio Guide and detailed information on various testing and assessment instruments can be found in GT-CyberSource.

An assessment of the extent of a student’s precocity may assist parents and educators to provide the most appropriate intellectual and emotional support for the student. Assessment of giftedness provides schools with the information required to make the appropriate educational provisions for the profoundly intelligent student.

Developmental Issues

Q. What are some of the developmental issues of profoundly intelligent children?

Very often profoundly intelligent children have unique developmental needs because their development is "out of sync" with the normal development of their age group. Their advanced cognitive abilities may cause them to perceive the world differently than their age-peers.

This may sometimes cause them to feel "different" and socially isolated. Leta Hollingworth, one of the early experts on profoundly intelligent children, observed significant differences in the development of the moderately and profoundly intelligent. After years of research, she identified an IQ range of 125-155 as "socially optimal." Children scoring within this range were generally well balanced, self-confident, and outgoing; they were likely to become effective leaders because they were able to win the confidence and friendship of their age-peers. However, children with IQs of 160 and above were so different from their age-mates that developmental problems were common, particularly between the ages of 4 and 9. As Hollingworth noted, "To have the intelligence of an adult and the emotions of a child in a childish body is to encounter certain difficulties."

In general, profoundly intelligent children who have a safe, supportive home environment and a schooling situation that is appropriate to their advanced cognitive abilities will be more successful in their ability to cope with developmental issues.


Q. What about schooling for profoundly intelligent young people?

Schooling can be a troublesome issue for profoundly intelligent children. Most schools group children based on age, which in most cases is not a productive learning environment for these students.

The best situation for the profoundly intelligent child is for the parents and the school to develop an Individualized Educational Plan that takes into account the child’s intellectual precocity and emotional development. Some of the options that schools can provide are:

Independent Study

Before beginning a unit, allow students the opportunity to demonstrate what they know through pre-testing. If a student can demonstrate mastery, work with him or her to develop an independent course of study to delve into the topic in greater depth. Examples of independent study options are online distance learning courses, correspondence courses, and forming a learning partnership with a mentor-teacher.

Subject Matter Acceleration

Support the profoundly intelligent student by accelerating him or her in one or more school subjects to provide intellectual challenge in areas where he or she is particularly advanced.

Credit by Examination

Some school districts offer examinations whereby students can skip one or more grades or a particular course by performing well on an examination of the material.

Special Educational Practices

In some cases, it may be advisable to develop an Individual Education Plan to provide the profoundly intelligent student with an education appropriate to his or her needs and abilities.

Dual Enrollment

Meeting the educational needs of a profoundly intelligent student may require enrollment in two or more levels of schooling at the same time: elementary and middle school, middle and high school, high school and college, elementary or middle school and college.

Extracurricular Opportunities

Extracurricular opportunities can offer intellectual challenges to profoundly intelligent students. Talent searches, state governor’s programs, contests/competitions and the pursuit of a significant piece of work for a Davidson Fellows award are among the opportunities that could be explored.


Accelerating the profoundly intelligent student to a grade level that is a closer match to his or her abilities is the educational option that is most successful and is strongly supported by empirical research. Acceleration is also socially advantageous for profoundly intelligent learners.

Age-grouped placement of the profoundly intelligent child seldom meets his/her needs. Many teachers and administrators, because of the "socialization" needs of the child, discourage acceleration or "skipping grades." However, research has repeatedly verified that acceleration is more socially beneficial to these learners than keeping them in age-grouped classrooms.

Parents and educators need to be aware of the research on acceleration and then work with schools to provide multi-age grouping of intellectual peers for highly intelligent students. Educational programs for profoundly intelligent children need to be customized for a profoundly intelligent learner. Administrators, teachers and parents must work together to develop an educational program that is appropriate for the child's ability and needs. Sometimes an educational advocate can help. In the words of Miraca Gross, "Exceptional students are surely those for whom their schools should make an exception."


Q. How do you parent a profoundly intelligent child?

Parenting profoundly intelligent children is one of the most difficult parenting challenges. As Stephanie Tolan, writer and parent of a profoundly intelligent child herself, states:

Raising a profoundly gifted child can be agony, ecstasy, and everything in between. Adults must perform almost impossible feats of balance; supporting a child's gifts without pushing, valuing without over-investing, championing without taking over. It is costly, physically and emotionally draining, and intellectually demanding. In the first flush of pride, few parents realize that their task is in many ways similar to the task faced by parents of a child with severe handicaps. Our world does not accommodate differences easily, and it matters little whether the difference is perceived to be a deficit or an overabundance.

Unfortunately, there is little information or support for parents with profoundly intelligent children, and traditional parenting practices may not take into consideration the specific needs and sensitivities of these kids. As James Webb observed, "In some families, continual evaluation and criticism of performance--one's own and others--is a tradition. Any natural tendency to self-evaluate likely will be inflated (by the profoundly intelligent child). Depression and academic underachievement may be increased." Asynchrony in the child's development also may lead to asynchrony in the family system. While normal, this asynchrony presents a special set of challenges (and joys).

The experts agree that the most significant way parents can help their profoundly intelligent children become comfortable with themselves is by providing them with a safe, supportive home environment where they are loved and accepted for who they are, differences and all.

The Unkindest Cut

Seven Stupid Arguments Against Programs for the Gifted

By Frances R. Spielhagen & Bruce S. Cooper

Gifted students are expected to drift along with the tide, garnering whatever they can from the educational experiences offered.The use of the G-word, giftedness, stirs fear in the hearts of many educators, who are more concerned of late with basic academic mastery, as prescribed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, than with helping the gifted. What does one do with and for students who have already achieved the benchmarks of the current educational standards? How can the school system address their diverse styles and needs when it must funnel so much time, energy, and resources into bringing all students up to a minimum standard of proficiency?

One solution to this dilemma has been the Javits Grants, named for Jacob K. Javits, the late U.S. senator from New York. These federal grants successfully, if only minimally, address the needs of gifted children. Unfortunately, they are now on the chopping block as the 109th Congress turns to budget deliberations. The president’s proposed $2.57 trillion federal budget for fiscal year 2006, sent to Capitol Hill in February, is designed to decrease the deficit and increase defense spending and foreign aid. But the plan also cuts 48 education programs, including the Javits Grants.

Originally passed by Congress in 1988, the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act has provided resources for state and local education agencies to conduct research, develop programs, and enhance existing gifted programs in states and school districts. The Javits program is the only federal initiative that specifically addresses gifted and talented students, using the definition of “gifted and talented” contained in the glossary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The U.S. Department of Education administers these grants, which are funded annually by Congress. The current allocation of $11.022 million is also distributed across several university-based research centers, state departments of education, and local educational agencies.

Divisive rhetoric and heated discourse have always surrounded the identification and education of gifted students and have led to perennial philosophical arguments over egalitarianism vs. elitism. To some, the American dream of educating all citizens seems at war with educating well those who benefit best from what educators have to offer. The resulting divide has produced several “stupid arguments” (our term, but apt) when policymakers and practitioners sit down to address the education of highly able students. Here are seven:

“All children are gifted.” No one would question the innate dignity of all human beings and the essential right of all children to grow intellectually. But those bottom-line premises must not obscure the reality that some people simply learn faster and at higher levels than others. Our society admires and even exalts a gifted athlete like Tiger Woods, whose early precocity engaged our imaginations and encouraged parents to put golf clubs in the hands of their 3-year-olds. But children who display unusual cognitive ability challenge the sensitivities of critics, who contend that appropriately differentiated academic experiences for highly able children are somehow unfair to other children.

“It’s not fair to offer special services for gifted students.” Zero-sum reasoning dominates the appropriation of limited resources in education. The much-needed attention to bringing all students up to a certain minimum standard of proficiency has resulted in a covetous use of funding. No one questions or begrudges the myriad special services and programs provided for students with specific learning needs that hinder their progress. But gifted students are expected to drift along with the tide, garnering whatever they can from the educational experiences offered. Once included in the parameters of the law then known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, PL 94-142, services for the gifted—and the allocation of funds for those services—have become regarded as frills that deduct from the common good.

“Gifted students learn on their own.” Since gifted students quickly master the basic educational goals of the curriculum, or arrive at a particular grade level or class having already learned the basic curriculum, they present a challenge to educators. Frequently, highly able students are encouraged to work independently, and many respond well to this encouragement. But some essential questions remain: What are they learning? Are they moving forward, working alone and in isolation? Are they learning at all? And, more important, what are schools doing for these students?

Gifted programs provide the time and space for children to learn at their own pace, with peers of similar capability and interests, and to grow both intellectually and emotionally. It’s hard to argue with that, but some do.

The wide appeal of egalitarianism often creates a leveling of experiences, depriving gifted children of the opportunity to advance academically.“Gifted programs are elitist.”Some critics maintain that programs for the gifted isolate students, who need to learn to interact with peers at all levels of ability to mirror the diversity found in American society. The wide appeal of egalitarianism often creates a leveling of experiences, depriving gifted children of the opportunity to advance academically. Rather than accepting the need to develop exceptional talent, some interpret the American dream of equality as requiring the same experiences for all. Yet President John F. Kennedy, more than 40 years ago, challenged the logic of this notion when he said, “All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talents.”

“Gifted programs are racist.” Much attention has been paid to the achievement gap between minority students and underserved populations and their more affluent white peers. And, in fact, when gifted programs have been tied to the financial resources of individual districts, services for the gifted often have eluded minority students and children in lower socioeconomic districts. In recent years, however, the National Association for Gifted Children has promoted comprehensive, inclusive identification policies for gifted programs. The now-threatened Javits Grants have supported research into identification instruments and program options for these underserved populations. The loss of this funding will set back such efforts at inclusion, long sought by educators of the gifted nationwide.

“Gifted children are weird. No one knows what to do with them anyway.” The “nerd” or “geek” stereotypes of gifted children prevalent in the media and popular culture are part of a growing anti-intellectualism in American society. This attitude creeps into educational discourse because most teachers have not been trained for the education of the gifted. They may not even know how to accommodate accelerated learning in a heterogeneous classroom. Already overburdened with the demands of those who must be brought up to standard, teachers recoil from addressing the equally real needs of their gifted students. In this case, however, unfamiliarity breeds contempt, or at least fear and uncertainty about how to proceed.

Once more, the work of the Javits-funded research and curriculum-development centers (such as the Center for the Gifted at the College of William and Mary and the National Research Center at the University of Connecticut) provide resources and training for teachers facing the challenge of educating all their students adequately and equitably.

“Why bother? Gifted students pass the state tests anyway.” Perhaps the “most stupid” of the arguments against gifted education is the contention that minimum, or perhaps “adequate,” proficiency in academics should be the goal for all students. Confronted with dismal showings by U.S. students in global comparisons such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, assessments, we should realize that neglecting the capabilities of our brightest students is a form of economic and political suicide.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress also has revealed a steady decline in U.S. students’ performance, especially in the middle school grades. And educators across the nation have bemoaned the flattening of outcomes within their school environments. By setting a minimum standard, and holding all students accountable for reaching that low level, a ceiling has been placed on both expectation and outcome.

Modifying the curriculum to enhance the growth of highly able students is not without benefit to other students. It can result in vibrant curriculum initiatives that energize the entire school community. Once more, the words of President Kennedy resonate: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

The Javits Grants, long a beacon of hope for educators of the gifted, have been part of this lifting process. They have been the major recourse for those who strive to ensure the intellectual growth of all students, regardless of ability. They have been the wind beneath the wings of many aspiring students, who may not have known the grants existed, but flourished in the environments they helped build.

Without these federal grants and other support for inclusive excellence, American educators may face the dire consequences implicit in another well-worn aphorism: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Frances R. Spielhagen is an American Educational Research Association/Institute of Education Sciences postdoctoral fellow at the College of William and Mary’s Center for Gifted Education, in Williamsburg, Va.

Bruce S. Cooper is a professor of education and the chair of the division of educational leadership, administration, and policy at Fordham University, in New York City. He is the author of the forthcoming book Homeschooling in Full View—A Reader (2005).

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Last modified: April 16, 2004

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