Secrets of a Vanguard Parent

How can anyone tell whether a four-year-old is gifted?

Parents like me tend to fixate on the next Vanguard hurdle: testing. For its incoming kindergarten class, HISD combines an interview with the child with the results of three tests: one for IQ (the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test), one for skills (the Woodcock-McGrew-Werder Mini-Battery of Achievement) and one for nonverbal creativity (the Torrance Thinking Creatively in Action and Motion). If a child's composite scores place her in the top 5 percent, she's granted automatic admission to the school of her choice. If she's not in the top 5 percent but still deemed Vanguard-worthy, she's entered into a lottery. If she doesn't win a slot at her first-choice school, she then has a crack at her second choice, and her third.

But can anyone actually tell whether a four-year-old is gifted? I asked Joseph Renzulli, the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, at the University of Connecticut. "There is a general rule in testing," he said. "The lower the age, the less the reliability." A test given at age five proves less reliable than a test given at age eight, which in turn is less predictive than one given at 17.

And a test at age four?

Quick: Which kid exhibits "high performance capability in an intellectual, creative or artistic area"?
Jeremy Eaton
Quick: Which kid exhibits "high performance capability in an intellectual, creative or artistic area"?
Quick: Which kid exhibits "high performance capability in an intellectual, creative or artistic area"?
Jeremy Eaton
Quick: Which kid exhibits "high performance capability in an intellectual, creative or artistic area"?

"I'm always cautious about making a 'gifted' or 'not gifted' decision at those ages," he said. "The decisions tend to be fairly permanent. Everyone always talks about flexibility, but the reality is that the systems are flexible mainly for parents with general schoolhouse savvy."


Eleven kids from the Mighty Eagle class tested for Vanguard, and ten -- including, thank God, Mary Jo -- were accepted by their first-choice schools. Instead of basking in her successes, Miss Michelle focused on the 11th child. She felt that she'd failed him. The Mighty Eagle parents were floored: He seemed at least as bright as the other kids. He'd had a bad day, we figured, or bad luck, or both. The test had been wrong.

Later I realized that the shocking thing wasn't that one of our kids hadn't made it; the shocking thing was that so many of our kids had. Admittedly, the class's demographics tilted in Esperanza's favor. The parents were mostly the white, upper-middle-class professional types now gentrifying the Heights, and their kids probably would succeed wherever they went. But ten out of 11? Even Miss Michelle was floored. What, she wondered, happened to kids whose parents couldn't pay $500 a month for preschool?

Vanguard hasn't worked out for all ten of the Mighty Eagles. One boy had trouble reading and began to hate school. His mom yanked him out of the program, afraid he was being pushed too fast, afraid he'd feel like a failure before he even finished kindergarten.

But River Oaks suits Mary Jo. As she enters the last quarter of kindergarten, she's mastering the skills expected of Vanguard kids. She's writing sentences complete with punctuation. She adds two-digit numbers. She can point to her humerus, and explain who Rosa Parks is, and say whether a shape is symmetrical.

For a Thanksgiving program, she learned a song that lists the 50 states in alphabetical order. She thought it was funny that I couldn't make it past Arkansas.

"But I don't know the song!" I said. "Nobody ever taught me!"

She showed no pity for the disadvantaged.


On April 3 Dixie Hopkins received the letter she'd been waiting for. The news couldn't have been better. She'd hit the trifecta. Jacob had been accepted at River Oaks and by both her backup choices.

"I feel lucky," she said, "like I hit the lottery."

I knew exactly what she meant.

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