The Gifted Class

When I was seven I got pulled out my second grade class and sent off to GATE--Gifted And Talented Education. If I recall, they basically just looked our CAT scores and picked the top ten percentile and decided we might be able to do something different. I loved GATE, but I don't think I loved it for the reasons I was supposed to. I remain convinced that I wasn't sharpest kid in the class, but I was one of the more creative. For me, learning had to be about "making things," and my GATE classes were all about that--a lot of projects, reports, and trips to the Zoo, the aquarium and the science center. 

I was basically in "gifted" classes for the rest of my public school career, but I didn't do particularly well. For the most part, unlike GATE, my gifted classes were just regular classrooms with an advanced curriculum. I always did well on my long-term projects, but I mostly sucked at the everyday work.

It's interesting how, among a certain class, the whole notion of being gifted has assumed a kind of cache and competitiveness. I meant to post this piece on New York's gifted program when it ran, but it somehow slipped my mind. The basic thrust is that a record number of New York kids in pre-K qualified for the city's gifted program. These two sections caught my eye:

The cause of the higher passing rates was not clear, but increased preparation might have been a factor. Hundreds of parents hired tutors or bought commercial test preparation materials before taking this year's test, a mixture of the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, a reasoning exam, and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment.

At the Perry School, a preschool in the West Village, children spent an hour a day in a "think tank program" designed to expose them to the reasoning and materials they would see during the test. They also had professional tutoring. Of the five students who took the gifted exam, "we got two 99s, a 98, and two 97s," said Dawn Ifrah, the founder. 

 Bright Kids NYC, the tutoring company that worked with those children, reported that 80 percent of the 120 children for whom it had results had scored over the 90th percentile, and 60 children had scored in the 99th.... 

The increase in high-scoring students was concentrated in the middle- and upper-middle-class districts of Manhattan and Queens. In the Bronx, fewer students qualified this year. 

 In District 3, which includes the Upper West Side, 455 children, a full 47 percent of those who took the test, scored at or over the 90th percentile, and 250 scored at or over the 97th, compared with 218 last year. In Manhattan's District 2, 44 percent of the test-takers qualified, and 341 pupils got top scores, a 42 percent increase.

Those are some stunning numbers, but I'm not clear on what they mean. Presumably the test is supposed to weed out the best and the brightest among New York's four-year olds--remember this is pre-K. And maybe that's exactly what's happening. Maybe half of all four-year olds on Manhattan's Upper West Side really are smarter than 90 percent of four-year olds across the country. But more likely, I think, they have parents who, like a lot of us,  are focused on making sure our kid "gets in." I think we're testing the parents at least much as the kids. 

It could me being from Baltimore, but I don't remember there being this much competition for gifted programs. It's wild. I think, had I been a kid in Manhattan today, there's no way I would have made the cut. 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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