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How Schools’ Failures With Gifted Children Drive The Test Prep Industry


I receive marketing emails from, which sells practice questions for major aptitude “gatekeeping” tests so parents can drill their children. Alarmist subject lines include: “Rolling the Dice on Your Child’s Future,” “Survive or Thrive,” “Fail to Prepare then Prepare to Fail,” and “These Parents Left it to Chance.”

The emails then seriously state that if you are not actively working to keep your child one step ahead of his peers, “your child is in serious danger of falling behind – which could put educational and career opportunities out of your child’s reach. Forever.” In one particularly egregious missive from “Karen, the Testing Mom,” I read:

  • Horror stories of parents who didn’t prepare for the big test and instead let their kids “fritter away” watching TV and playing video games. In other words, this is a binary option.
  • About parents who assumed a test for their preschooler would be easy. In other words, you are a fool if you don’t realize four-year-olds are involved in high-stakes testing.
  • About parents who are worried about cheating and who do not realize that test prep is here to stay. In other words, it might be cheating, but hey, everyone is doing it.

Companies like this prey on the anxieties of parents who have been inundated with the message that every parenting decision can have long-lasting effects on their children.

Parents Just Want to Help Their Kids

The thing is, “Testing Mom” is not necessarily wrong. In certain cities, such as New York City, the playing field is not level. Rich parents who can afford thousands of dollars in test prep are gaming the system, and some cities attempt to stay a step ahead by introducing new tests every few years. However, in this educational arms race, test prep companies—and the frantic parents propping them up—continue to gain access to sample questions.

Is it really that important that children get into an elite school? Probably not. For privileged kids especially, it will likely not significantly change their life outcome. In addition, prepping for an intelligence test may familiarize a child with the format, which can improve outcomes compared to a similar child who is flummoxed by the testing, but one simply cannot inflate a child’s score to the point that a thoroughly average child tests as gifted.

The above factors mitigate the “unfairness” of the whole process, but the overall culture of schooling has suffered. An erroneous understanding of education and success ends with parents demanding an earlier and earlier entrance onto what they think is the conveyer of life: from a rigorous preschool to an award-winning elementary and secondary school, all the way to Harvard and future prosperity. A “good enough” school that does just “fine” with education is an unacceptable gamble.

It is easy to believe these parents have their priorities completely out of whack and are elitists more worried about status than their children’s happiness. But parents of all socioeconomic statuses believe that caring about education equals drilling math facts and ABCs. As a mother with elementary-aged children, I regularly encounter well-meaning parents asking the best resources for teaching their two-year-olds, or how to prep their children for kindergarten, and don’t quite believe me when I advise them to let the kids play and explore. This focus on early achievement is not all attributable to braggarts at cocktail parties; many parents just want their kids to have a good future and know “education” is the way.

As with every parenting trend, there is, of course, pushback. Just as any worried mother on the playground could immediately be painted as a “helicopter parent” the moment she protects her child from a fall, self-important know-it-alls will scoff at children who read, do math, or write earlier than their peers and assume their parents are hothousing them.

No, children do not need to read in kindergarten. Yeah, endlessly drilling four-year-olds with flashcards is likely not good for them (and their gains will likely level out by third grade). Yes, kids who are smart don’t always have to be celebrated and treated separately. It is a good skill to learn how to interact with one’s peers regardless of perceived or real intellectual ability.

Ending Gifted Programs Won’t Help, Though

However, the existence of parents who use Testing Mom or Bright Kids give other parents with intellectually advanced kids a bad name. Often these parents are just as shocked by their child’s intellectual prowess as everyone else and often minimize their child’s accomplishments to deflect criticism.

Even in non-competitive areas of the country, parents fret about getting their children’s IQ assessed by private psychologists or within the school system. Parents still want their kids to get tested so they can advocate for their kids, who may be languishing in a “one size fits all” environment. Any child out of the mainstream, in whatever way, encounters issues in traditional schooling.

Thankfully, in many school districts, a child with a diagnosed learning disability will be accommodated for his or her unique learning needs. But many “gifted” children also have unique learning needs, and they are far less likely to find support.

What should gifted programs do? They are supposed to encourage a growth mindset for kids who learn easily, put children with their intellectual peers, not just age peers, and create their own versions of Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for children who may learn at a different pace, think in a different way, and struggle with asynchronous development.

The debate about gifted education suffers because there is no distinction between a high-achieving student and a gifted student. They are not always the same. A high-achieving student, gifted or not, can generally function in a mainstream environment. But some gifted learners are low achievers, or have disabilities such as ADHD or dyslexia in addition to their gifts (these students are often described as twice-exceptional). They may have overexcitabilities (OEs) or low executive functioning skills. And they may only choose to use their “gifts” on subjects that interest them, even if it is something as esoteric as the mating rituals of birds.

Certainly, not all smart kids need special attention. One young relative is thriving with her age group even if technically she could be one or two grade levels ahead. Her parents believe the social and group dynamics of her schooling are more important than maximizing her academic potential, and so far, with the addition of slightly more challenging work, their assumptions have borne out. But would that apply to a gifted learner with emotional problems? How about to a child who is four or more grade levels ahead?

The word “gifted” unfortunately is loaded. It does not necessary mean “better than.” It means the child needs academic support, for whatever reason.

This Is Why People Homeschool

Of course, that’s all in an ideal world. In reality, many gifted programs are no more than a 30-minute pull-out class weekly—or monthly—with a few puzzles and games. The identification of gifted students is also problematic. At times, they are achievement tests, not aptitude tests.

Some gifted children are also at a disadvantage when taking popular screening tests such as the CogAT and the OLSAT, because the group format and untrained proctors cannot adapt to quirks such as taking questions too literally. Finally, the identification process often leaves minority and disadvantaged students behind.

Therefore, most parents of gifted children do not have access to a quality specialized program. When you hear their unfiltered thoughts on the subject (just peruse forums for parents of prodigiously gifted children) you’ll find common themes of the type of education they’d like to encounter for their children:

  • A play-based education that allows a child to explore and have fun learning.
  • Meeting the children where they are: giving them challenging work if that’s what they want and giving grace if they slow their pace.
  • Space to explore their interests.

Wouldn’t it be great if parents did not have to document and label their kids in order to get that sort of education? So much of the need for testing would be mitigated. Not all parents have to have some sort of confirmation that their child is “special”—they just need help getting their children what they need.

For many, the only reason testing is useful is precisely because traditional schooling is broken. The young relative I referenced earlier is in a public school that incorporates elements of play in the curriculum, but if she were in a true independent play-based school or homeschooled, none of the testing she underwent would have been necessary.

That type of education and the lack of formal identification that goes along with it has multiple additional benefits. A child does not feel the need to compare to peers. A child does not define himself or herself as smarter than others. And a child learns that the worth of a man is not determined by his intelligence.

In the end, many of the children we are speaking about will turn out okay, even if they may not achieve their potential, end up hating school, lose a growth mindset, or their parents have misguided priorities. But again, in a perfect world, gifted programs would identify students with actual needs. All the labeling and jockeying for identification and special services among the chattering classes in the end is likely for naught, but the subsequent backlash against services for students with asynchronous development will hurt the ones who most need the leg up a good education would provide.