The old comedy bit had a mother watching with dismay as her child built a jagged tower from the pieces supposed to fit neatly into an educational toy. "You have a very creative boy there," said the quick-thinking door-to- door salesman.

It's not just a joke, as we are reminded every now and then by the difficulties of detecting the inner strengths of children through conventional testing. Most recently the question came up at a Columbia University conference on gifted children. How do you tell if they're gifted beyond their scores on standardized math and reading tests?

Those present found that existing tests fail to show children's ability to imagine, to create, to have patience (which one professor noted was an attribute of Thomas Edison). These qualities can belong to children whatever their numerical scores. They are to be watched for, recognized, cherished; they can remov e the look of dismay from parents with eyes to see.

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