Giftedness: What are we testing?

A recent article in the NYT on testing for giftedness suggests that the test scores let in the well-prepared students rather than those who are “gifted”. As a psychologist, I have heard parents bemoan the fact that their child missed acceptance into the program "by one point". While I realize that cut-offs are necessary, what exactly are we "cutting off"?

 In gifted programs, where there are limited spaces, and the promise to offer a child access to wonderful opportunities and enrichment programs, parents are eager for their child to put their best proverbial foot forward. Enter the centers that offer coaching and training in everything from test taking skills to taking the test itself. 

This made me wonder: What are we testing when we test for "giftedness"? Test taking skills or an ability to think creatively and innovatively?

Enter Working Memory.  In my research program over the last 10 to 15 years, my goal has to been to understand the role of working memory in education. A consistent finding is that working memory is a skill that is critical for academic success as it allows us to work with information. Think of writing an essay. How well you organize your thoughts, bring out plot points, and analyze the characters’ motivations is a better indication of what you know than simply parroting characters’ names, locations, and plot turns. And working memory is necessary for the former. Indeed, research both from my own lab and others have demonstrated that working memory is linked not just to learning (from kindergarten to college), but for decision making in everyday activities.

Given that working memory is important not just to academic success, but beyond the classroom, I was interested in finding out how gifted children would fare on a working memory test. I worked with the National Association of Gifted Children and gave a group of gifted students both IQ and Working Memory tests.

The results showed no clear link between IQ score and the strength of working memory. Although all of the students had a high IQ, they didn’t all score at the top of the scale in working memory. In fact, their working memory scores ran the gamut from low to high. It seems that students with a high IQ but low working memory are more likely to be underachievers, and students with both a high IQ and a strong working memory are most likely to excel. This finding has been echoed in other published research: working memory is a stronger predictor of academic success than IQ scores.

Perhaps we should rethink what we are testing when we test for "giftedness".  Maybe we should begin prioritizing the role of working memory in learning—that way, we can begin to understand how students work with knowledge, rather than just gain a snapshot of the knowledge they know.


Alloway, T.P. & Elsworth, M. (2012). An investigation of cognitive skills and behavior in high ability students. Learning and Individual Differences. ABSTRACT