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The Junior Meritocracy

Given his druthers, Meisels, at Erikson Institute, says he’d try to get a more comprehensive picture of the child. “And that can only be found through watching children in classroom situations,” he says. “And looking at the products of their work. And getting to know them. And that can be done through observational assessments.”

I try to interrupt him, but he anticipates my objection. “It’s not very practical, I know,” he says. “It means teaching teachers how to do it. It’d be more expensive. But you could do it. And then you’d get the right kids into these differentiated programs.”

Many researchers agree with him—and will add, as Meisels later does in our conversation, that kids ought never to be evaluated just once. “If one believes that kids do learn and improve,” says McCall, “then a few new kids should be eligible for gifted programs each year.”

If you’re looking for practical answers though, Plucker, of Indiana, has a modest proposal. He suggests that schools assess children at an age when IQs get more stable. And in fact, that’s just what City and Country, one of Manhattan’s more progressive schools, does. Standardized tests aren’t required of their applicants until they’re 7 or older. “That way, the kids are further along in their schooling,” explains Elise Clark, the school’s admissions director. “They’re used to an academic setting, they can handle a test-taking situation, and overall, we consider the results more reliable.” Even then, she says, her school still doesn’t weight IQ scores very much. “If we did, what we’d have is a group of kids with good test-taking skills and … I don’t know what else.”

But my money’s on the marshmallow test. It’s quite compelling and, apparently, quite famous—Shenk talks about it with great relish in The Genius in All of Us. In the sixties, a Stanford psychologist named Walter Mischel rounded up 653 young children and gave them a choice: They could eat one marshmallow at that very moment, or they could wait for an unspecified period of time and eat two. Most chose two, but in the end, only one third of the sample had the self-discipline to wait the fifteen or so minutes for them. Mischel then had the inspired idea to follow up on his young subjects, checking in with them as they were finishing high school. He discovered that the children who’d waited for that second marshmallow had scored, on average, 210 points higher on the SAT.

Two hundred and ten points. Can Princeton Review boast such a gain? Maybe our schools ought to be screening children for self-discipline and the ability to tolerate delayed gratification, rather than intelligence and academic achievement. It seems as good a predictor of future success as any. And Mischel’s test subjects, too, were just 4 years old.