Identifying gifted and talented students with equity proves difficult

Without a clear definition, districts in many states struggle to best serve 'giftedness'

Nationwide, students of color are dramatically underrepresented within gifted and talented education programs. Part of the reason why, some experts say, is because kids of color are less likely to be identified as gifted.

According to the National Association for Gifted Children, between 6-10% of students are gifted and could use additional support in the classroom. That’s a total of 3 to 5 million children in grade K-12.

Yet, the NAGC notes, no U.S. federal agency or organization collects these student statistics.

Minority students have long been underrepresented in the gifted category, which the NAGC calls “especially troublesome.” The organization reports that low-income students are also dramatically underrepresented.

And though the federal Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Children and Youth Education Act of 1988 acknowledged a need for gifted learning programs and mandates tracking for the educational progress for poor, minority, and ELL students, there are no guidelines in place that would regulate the equitable identification and progress of gifted students. 

Identifying gifted and talented (GT) learners can be a challenge for any school. According to The Edvocate, students identified as gifted aren't consistently high-achievers or well-behaved, and their "giftedness can often result in apathy, lack of effort, and resentment."

Complicating matters, no blanket definition of "giftedness" exists across states or local education agencies. And no existing national requirements guide how gifted programs are executed.

According to U.S. News & World Report, 35 states do track identify and track their best-performing students, but the remaining 15 don’t track those students at all.

One study by the University of Virginia examined GT programs within 2,000 U.S. elementary school, 1,753 middle school, and 1,160 high school districts in 2014. Their findings showed that low-income students were under-represented even more that black and Latino students within the reported gifted student population.

Debbie Roby is the supervisor of gifted education at Lewisville Independent School District (LISD) in Flower Mound, TX, and a co-author of the book “Identifying and Serving Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Gifted Students.” Her focus is, in part, on identifying and serving frequently overlooked gifted children  a population she says are culturally and linguistically diverse, and often from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“These populations don’t fit the 'traditional mold' of giftedness,” Roby said. “More training needs to be done on the characteristics of giftedness found in these populations.”  

At LISD, Roby realized that of the district’s diverse population of more than 53,000 students  who spoke at least 75 languages and dialects — not a single bilingual student had been formally identified as gifted and talented.

“The demographics in GT, just like other special programs, should be representative of the community served,” she said. “Therefore, educators have to look at how to grow gifted potential and then identify it all the while understanding that one test score does not represent the potential or current ability of a student.”

Gifted students can also be difficult to manage in the classroom, as they’re more likely to be skeptical and challenge teachers and peers. They can also be disruptive. The categorization of "gifted” also does not mean overall or generally. Students can be gifted in one area and not others.

For Roby, a key part of identification hinged on a definition provided by the state of Texas. At LISD, recent revisions to the Texas State Plan for the Gifted were considered, especially one change in particular.

“No longer did students qualify for a GT 'program,' but for ‘services,’” Roby explained. “That semantic change alone, presented opportunities for some healthy discussion and rich professional learning. We began to draw parallels between that verb-age and how other special populations were served.”

After continuing conversations around the “spirit” of the Texas state definition, which identifies a student as gifted and talented if they “perform at or show the potential for performing at a remarkable high level of accomplishment when compared to others of the same age, experience and environment,” Roby realized that LISD’s identification strategies didn’t align with what she calls “the spirit of advocacy" the communications from the state were sending districts.

The original federal definition, as developed by the 1972 Marland Report to Congress, defines GT students as “students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”

“Definitions are good guides to provide direction when thinking systematically about how to identify and serve students, but a one-size-fits-all approach is dangerous,” she said. “If educators try to fit all students into one mold, then we’re doing what’s easiest for the system and not what is best for the individual child.”

The district and Roby decided on using the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT) in her district, an exam developed by the learning company Pearson. The NNAT is used to identify gifted and talented K-4 students, regardless of language or culture barriers.

Pearson recently announced the next generation of its NNAT test.

“The NNAT3 features new content, updated ​norms from a nationally representative sample of more than 10,000 students, and a new online interface that is optimized for administering the assessment with a tablet,” Dr. Alistair Van Moere, head of Pearson’s assessment product solutions, said.

If it were up to Roby, who is a supporter of the NNAT, Pearson would incorporate even more assessment tools, in a variety of additional languages, in its next version.

“Gifted students, like any other special population, have needs that are not meet within the standard, one-size fits all, cookie cutter educational environment or curriculum,” she said. “If we don’t feed their cognitive potential in engaging environments, then we aren’t aiding in their growth.”

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Filed Under: K12 Policy & Regulation
Top image credit: Wikimedia user Hoodr