Many parents turn to private psychologists for kids’ ‘gifted’ tests

More than 8,000 Miami-Dade public school children were tested last year for giftedness. But it wasn’t all done by school psychologists.

The district spent millions to administer exams at no cost to students’ families, but parents nevertheless sent hundreds of children to outside psychologists for evaluations that can cost up to $500 each. And while more than one-third of the students tested by the district failed to qualify for services, less than 1 percent of submitted private evaluations were turned away by schools.

District officials say there’s no evidence the outside evaluations are flooding gifted programs with children who don’t belong. But there have long been concerns that parents shop for psychologists to purchase their child’s elevated IQ score and gain access to what is sometimes perceived to be a higher quality education.

Parents talk about it. So do teachers, principals, and even the for-hire psychologists.

“You go to a private evaluator, and in my experience you’re likely to get designated gifted. You’re likely to get a high IQ score,” said Donna Ford, a Vanderbilt University professor who specializes in gifted education and has advised Miami-Dade. “You’re paying hundreds of dollars, and they give you exactly what you want.”

School psychologists are regulated by the Florida Department of Health. The state’s Department of Education oversees gifted criteria and programming, but does not take stock of how many private tests are conducted, said gifted specialist Carol Bailey. That’s up to the districts and individual schools.

In Miami-Dade, there were more than 800 private tests last year, compared to the 7,801 tests conducted by district psychologists. Broward officials couldn’t say how many they’d received.

Shari Valencic, president of the Florida Association for the Gifted, said choosing private testing over public school testing is like a consumer in the market for a car choosing to upgrade to a luxury vehicle. She said parents may get a better quality evaluation, or might not want their child to wait for months on a list to be pulled out for testing during class. Miami-Dade had 134 psychologists to administer those 7,800 tests.

But a lot of parents, she acknowledged, go to private evaluators after the school district finds their children don’t qualify for gifted programming.

“Back in the day, we were seeing parents going to psychologist, to psychologist, to psychologist until they came up with a score that qualified their child,” she said. “Some of the rules and regulations of that are starting to change. Now there seems to be periods of time between tests taken. Districts are conversating with private psychologists.”

Fabian Redler, whose What’s On Your Mind learning center provides gifted evaluations among many other services, said his psychologists clarify that their evaluations are done on the up-and-up to avoid misconceptions.

“There’s a lot of parents who expect to go to a psychologist and because they’re paying money they want them to push up the scores,” he said. “But if your kid isn’t able to handle gifted classes, they’re going to struggle.”

Redler’s office evaluated Maxwell Colan, 8, who attends Virginia A. Boone Highland Oaks Elementary in Ojus, where more than one in three children is in a gifted program. Colan’s mother, Lori, believes lax private evaluations are one of the reasons the gifted classes are so full, and why she and her son were frustrated with the lack of speed and rigor of his first-grade gifted class last year.

“The parents know it’s done,” she said. “The teachers certainly know it’s done.”

Virginia Boone Principal Kim Rubin did not return messages left for her at the school, where last year 35 private evaluations were submitted and there were 257 gifted students.

Miami-Dade’s administrators point out that all private evaluations are reviewed by the student’s school, and a child must still meet additional criteria outside the minimum IQ and show a need to be placed in a gifted program. If a test is found to be flawed, it’s thrown out, though that rarely happens.

Suspicions have existed for years, if not decades, though there are few complaints to substantiate psychologists have their thumbs on IQ scales. A Palm Beach County consultant and gifted expert documented strong anecdotal evidence 15 years ago that the process was being abused and recommended the private tests no longer be accepted, but the district’s school board didn’t take action.

Last year, there were only five complaints against school psychologists, none of which was substantiated. A Department of Health spokeswoman said the nature of the complaints is confidential.

Terry Wilson, a past president of the Florida Gifted Network, says it’s unfair to stigmatize private evaluations. She said they provide a needed service considering school district psychologists are “overworked and underpaid” and have wider and often more pressing responsibilities than gifted testing.

“There are a handful of really poor private psychologists out there that likely help in giving some students higher scores. Why are they still allowed to practice? Districts know who they are,” she wrote. “I don’t believe we should prohibit private testing for gifted eligibility.”

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