What is it like raising a gifted kid?

What is it like raising a gifted kid?

Gifted kids think differently and see the world differently and that difference is not measured on standardized tests!!

I have a highly gifted kid. He’s fun. I enjoy him. But school. It’s a bit of a problem. And that’s because while he scores in the 95% for things like math aptitude, he routinely scores in the 30% to 50% range on tests.  And it’s not because he gets the answers wrong. It’s because how he understands the problem is manifestly different from how normal people and the test designers understand the questions being asked so his correct answers are often marked wrong.

For instance – check out this test prep question.

array problem that stumps a gifted kid

It is a 3×4 array of blocks. You are asked to choose the division equation shown by the 3×4 array. The correct answer is obviously 12/3=4 

The problem is that my son isn’t neurotypical. He’s highly gifted. And he didn’t see this as a 3×4 array. He saw it as a 2×6 array. In fact, it’s so obvious to him it’s a 2×6 array that when I told him it was a 3×4 array – he was stunned and argumentative.  When I counted the array for him so he could see it – he still couldn’t see it.  It was obviously 2×6 and his brain refused to see the 3×4 version of it. He even drew it how he sees it so I would understand.

And I do understand – that this can also be divided into a 2×6 array and 2×6 is way easier to solve than 3×4 – which is probably why his mind solved the problem that way.

The problem is, even though he is correct, and his answer is correct, it’s not the “right” answer for the test.  And if he insists on answering this as if it’s a 2×6 array – he will be marked incorrect, even though – he’s correct. This happens to him a lot and it’s very frustrating for him – as you can imagine.  You are right, you know you are right but the people around you and your teachers are telling you – you are wrong.

I insisted he mark it the way it’s supposed to be because I think it is important for him to develop the flexibility of mind so that he can see it both as he sees it and how normal people see it.

To help you understand how difficult this gap between normal thinking and gifted thinking is for him – I drew a box that was 3 inches by 4 inches. That he could see was clearly 3×4.  It’s only when you visually set this up so that his brain can take grouping short cuts that he has problems. And that’s not really a problem. It’s pretty darned awesome that his brain automatically creates groupings so that he can see and solve problems more clearly and easily.  But the standardized tests don’t show how awesome his brain is and all the amazing things it can do. They only show that he doesn’t seem to understand something as simple as a 3×4 array just because his brain saw a deeper pattern in the array.

My son was so upset by this whole – his correct answer wasn’t the right answer because that’s not how normal people see the array – that he expressed his frustration by drawing a frowny face next to the array and drawing his alternate array solution so his teacher would understand he was right and the question was wrong.  Why was he so upset?  Because in order to get this question “right” he has to solve the problem in a way he describes as “stupid” because it’s not as easy as his way, which involved grouping things into an easier to solve math problem. Why should he have to dumb himself down and do it the hard way to get the answer “right?” And why do other people get to decide which way is the correct way? And he has a valid point.

Why am I sharing this with you?

I’m not opposed to standardized testing. I think using these sorts of things as a way to teach him how other people think is very useful. As I said before – I think it’s important for him to not only see the world as he does, but to simultaneously understand what other people are seeing and understanding.

What I am against is using these tests to decide what kids are capable of – or using them in a high stakes way to determine teacher salaries – or whether a kid progresses to the next grade or not.  It’s the high stakes nature of the testing that is the problem.

Standardized high stakes testing mean you risk taking a kid with incredibly high math aptitude and convincing him that he’s an idiot because he not only keeps failing these tests despite doing higher level reasoning in math and despite his reasoning being accurate, but you also risk retaining him because you can’t see how incredibly awesome his brain really is, precisely because he keeps failing your tests. 

My son’s math grades are all over the map. His range is 32% to 100% correct. The variation is completely dependent on whether or not the question can be interpreted in a different way. Because if it can – he will. He’s highly gifted. Abstract thinking is kind of what gifted people do.

I understand too that the common core testing – with all its writing – is designed to ensure that as long as a kid can explain why they came up with the deviant answer they did – it’s all ok. But it’s not really ok because practice tests like this, instead of helping my son revel in how his cool his brain is, just leave him frustrated and mad and like it’s not worth the effort because he’s going to get marked wrong anyway.  And because it’s a standardized test being mass graded, do they really read and give credit to a kid with a wrong answer just because he attempted to explain why his wrong answer is really right?

These high stakes tests also affect my son’s teachers. They adore him and understand how differently he thinks and how amazing his mind works. But instead of supporting all that bizarre abstract thinking, they have to spend their time trying to rein his brain in to fit the standard model so he can pass the tests so he can graduate his grade and move on.

And I get it – he needs to have basic skills. He needs to be able to read and write and do basic math. And he can. But that’s not what the tests are testing for. And it’s frustrating to me as a mother to know that my son’s confidence in math is being negatively impacted by this because he clearly has a natural aptitude for math, but he isn’t seeing it because he keeps getting marked wrong and he doesn’t know why because the obviously right answer was somehow wrong and no one explains to him why.

And in case you were wondering, the same thing happens on reading comprehension tests.  My son is an excellent reader. He’s voracious. But his reading tests have the same range of scores as the math ones do (30% to100% correct) and when I look at what he’s getting wrong, it’s clear to me – he got it right, he just didn’t answer it the way the test writer wanted him to because his understanding of the question was … non-standard.

Everyone who works with my kid recognizes how smart he is. But despite his high intelligence, high aptitudes and high level of comprehension, his ability to show what he knows on a standardized test appears random. We literally have no way of knowing how he will score on any given test because his test score is entirely dependent on whether his brain has room to wriggle or not. Because if it can – he will. And while all this brain wiggling is fabulous in the real world, on a standardized test – it means failure. 

What I want politicians to know.

I realize that testing provides you with data and with a way to share government largess with your testing company pals. But if OUR brightest students can’t pass YOUR tests something is wrong with the tests.

Perhaps, instead of asking schools to prove their kids are normal – we instead help kids explore how exceptional they can be.

What I want other parents to understand.

I participate in mom blogs and online discussion groups. For those of you who are hoping your kid is gifted and who are looking for ways to help your child pass the “gifted” test, understand – giftedness is a double edged sword. In fact, in a school environment, it’s almost a handicap. Being gifted does not necessarily translate into high performing. It’s not something you can teach your child.  It’s how their brains are wired. Gifted kids are considered special needs for a reason and are legally entitled to special services precisely because of how different they are. It’s very hard to keep them motivated and to help them understand why even though they are right they are getting marked wrong.  They have to be taught explicitly how normal people think so that they can translate their brain thoughts into something comprehensible to the rest of us. And the fact that other people can’t see what’s obvious to them is incredibly annoying especially since they are being graded by what’s normal – which they aren’t.

I love my gifted kid. And I love how he thinks and every time we come across a – his gifted brain is right but that’s not how a normal brain would answer that question – I am reminded of just how amazing he is. But it also breaks my heart because of just how often that happens. The standardized tests by which he is judged are failing him. Because let’s be clear. My son isn’t failing these tests, the tests are failing him. If they were scored the way he thinks – he would be getting 80-100%. Routinely telling kids that they are wrong when they are actually right because the grader can’t even comprehend that an alternate answer is possible is harmful to gifted kids. Perhaps it’s time we consider other ways of evaluating student progress. I hate to think of how many kids are being labelled as not meeting expectations simply because the tests are so poorly designed, they fail them.