The Florida Department of Education is considering a plan to redefine "giftedness." As of now, your Floridian child isn't officially gifted unless he/she scores at least 130 on an I.Q. test. The new plan would lower that threshold to 120, expanding the giftedness pool from 3% to perhaps 10% of schoolkids.
Lots of issues here: What does "gifted" mean? Do these tests really identified the most promising students? Are "gifted" programs worthwhile? Are they fair?
Let's begin with what I.Q. tests measure and what they mean.
I.Q. tests are about a century old and are intended to measure a person's "general intelligence" as compared to other people in his/her age. The tests are calibrated so that a person of supposedly average intelligence will score 100.
Specifically I.Q. tests measure symbolic logic -- a person's ability to understand and manipulate symbols ranging from words to numbers to shapes. These tests do not measure emotional intelligence -- the ability to read and respond to one's emotions or the emotions of others. Nor do they measure musical/rhythmic intelligence, body/kinesthetic intelligence, categorical intelligence (ability to distinguish between different categories and classifications), or existential/big-picture intelligence. You might say that I.Q. measures "book smart," but not "people smart" or "culture smart."
In many ways, I.Q. is an anachronism, but it persists for two main reasons. One is that cognitive scientists, psychologists and neuroscientists still find it a useful gauge of general intelligence, which seems to be by far the most heritable type of intelligence.
Secondly, it has proven to be a good predictor of overall life success -- who will do reasonably well in school and society, who will get and hold a good job, make a good amount of money, stay out of trouble, and so on. (Of course these are just population studies and percentages. It doesn't tell us for sure whether any particular individual with an I.Q. of 80 or 140 will do well or poorly in life.)
The great irony, though, is that I.Q. does not identify most "talents" or special abilities -- and absolutely does not enable us to predict who will grow up to become extraordinary scientists, musicians, teachers, leaders, or athletes. It predicts general success, but not greatness.
Does it make sense for schools to pay special attention to kids who are already generally on the right track? On the one hand, yes: As a society, we want to encourage general success, to help nudge along people who will be contributing the most as a class to our society and economy.
On the other hand, an I.Q.-based gifted program is problematic in two important ways. First, a program focused on the top 10% I.Q. scorers diverts resources from the people who need it most -- the 90% who aren't as likely to succeed and therefore could benefit the most from extra help.
Second, if we want our schools to truly nurture talent -- encourage great achievement from those with special potential, I.Q. is not the place to start. In fact, it may be the worst possible place.