Guest Post: Alan S. Kaufman, Some Thoughts About the Super-Gifted

We are grateful that Dr. Kaufman agreed to write a guest post on the Gifted Assessment Insights blog. We hope that you enjoy Dr. Kaufman’s post about super-gifted students.


Alan S. Kaufman, Yale University Child Study Center

As a professional, I have scoffed at headlines about a backwoods teenage genius with an IQ of 190 or an insightful and funny columnist who advertises herself as the smartest person in the world with an IQ of 228. As I argued in IQ Testing 101 and elsewhere: The norms just don’t go that high, stratospheric IQs are imaginary numbers, and they have no scientific justification.

I had to struggle to get David Wechsler to extend the WISC-R norms to 160, even though he insisted that going 4 standard deviations above the mean was nothing more than guesswork. Although professionals I respect—such as Linda Silverman (Giftedness 101) or the late great Julian Stanley at Johns Hopkins—have made the study of super gifted people both an art and science, I have resisted. Certainly the age-old IQ formula of MA divided by CA X 100 permits the mathematical computation of absurdly high IQs, but that formula should have become extinct eons ago along with the woolly mammoth.

As a professional, with a PhD in psychology mentored by super psychometrician Robert L. Thorndike, don’t get me started about superstars with IQs of 200. But as a parent and grandparent… well, that is a bit different. In that domain, there is Jennie who spoke in full sentences before her first birthday, David the musical theater star, Nicole the Emmy-winning producer and film-maker, and Kate the poet. And there is James, who I still call Jamie, who edits the Psychology 101 series that features my book on IQ and Silverman’s on giftedness, and who is among the leading creativity scholars in the world.

When Nadeen used 5-year-old Jamie as her “test subject” for her assessment course at DePaul University, she administered the McCarthy Scales, or at least tried to. As my teaching assistant at University of Georgia, Bruce Bracken, discovered two years earlier when he used Jamie as a demonstration subject for the course on preschool assessment, it was nearly impossible to stay a step ahead of Jamie (Bruce had to use an abundance of creativity—Paul Torrance was chair of the department—and rely on more self-control than he possessed to make it through the class.).

Nadeen faced the same crisis when Jamie decided that he could do a better job of administering the McCarthy Scales than she could. He took the manual and followed the standardized procedures and exact wording as he proceeded to administer two subtests to two different graduate students before Nadeen regained control of the demonstration with as much parental restraint as she could muster. So naturally I used Jamie as my demonstration subject at age 6 for my Wechsler-Binet course.

My TA Leslie was doing a wonderful job administering the 1972 Stanford-Binet to him, even able to keep Jamie under hypnotic control for 45 minutes while managing to pause occasionally to instruct the class on administration subtleties, scoring ambiguities, and techniques for maintaining rapport. She drew on the board Jamie’s abstract design, which he had to draw from memory, and explained that it should be scored 1.5 out of a possible 2. Jamie turned to the board and said, “What??!! That is perfect. Why did I lose half a point? Not fair.” But he was redirected, and the session continued. . . and continued . . . and continued.

On the old Binet, the examiner had to keep testing until the child or adult reached a ceiling. Which meant that the person had to fail all tasks at that level, typically six different tasks. But Jamie got all tasks right at the 10-year level, and kept getting one or two or three correct through Level XIII. My TA was eying me for permission to end the session, which was pushing two hours, even though a legitimate ceiling hadn’t been reached. I avoided eye contact with her and she continued. At Level XIV, he failed the first five tasks, and a visibly relieved Leslie exhaled; one task to go! Then Jamie sailed through “Reconciliation of Opposites” with ease. That meant administering the Average Adult (AA) level to him, the only level that had 8 tasks, in order to get a ceiling. Sensing a rebellion by Leslie and about half the class (the others were caught up in “How high can he go? Just how high is his IQ?”), I relented. We violated the standardization procedures and quit testing without reaching a ceiling. I let everyone leave. And I never even bothered to compute the IQ he would have earned if he had failed all 8 AA tasks, though I knew it was through the roof.

I never tired of using my kids as demonstration subjects, because it allowed me and my various TAs—for a couple of years it was Cecil Reynolds—to instruct the class while Jennie, David, or Jamie would (usually) wait patiently for the feedback to be given to the eager and often brilliant graduate students. Yet one of my favorite stories happened in the real world, not in my classroom. My granddaughter was referred for gifted placement as a second grader in San Diego. When the examiner started to test Nicole, the acronym “K-BIT” stared back at her. “That’s my grandparents’ test,“ she exclaimed, though she had never seen it before. “Now, Nikki Hendrix, let’s save the tall stories for later,” the examiner chastised her. But with a bit of persistence, my granddaughter managed to get the reluctant woman to retrieve the manual from the kit and find the Dedication, which Nicole knew by heart (“To Nikki, with love, from Nana and Papa”); then the evaluation began. Gifted indeed!

So what exactly do I believe about kids or adults with super high IQs? I guess, deep down inside despite my scientist’s skepticism, I think that maybe Marilyn vos Savant did earn an IQ of 228, with a mental age of 22 years 10 months, when she was a girl of 10.