Identification signWe know that minority children are underrepresented in gifted programs. Those children can belong to any number of minorities: racial, language, and even economic. This means that children who belong to a racial minority, whose native language is something other than English, or whose families are poor are selected less often for gifted programs than are children who are white, English-speaking, or middle and upper class. The reason for this under-representation is believed by many to be based on prejudice. I agree. But it’s not the kind of prejudice you probably think it is..

Gifted children make up about 6-10% of the human population. (Many experts put the range at between 3-5%.) We should find approximately equal numbers of gifted children from any subgroup of the population, regardless of race, language, or economic status. But we don’t. Many people today claim that the under-representation of these groups in gifted programs is due to prejudice, an unwillingness to accept that children from these groups can be gifted. However, I know of no experts in the gifted field who believe any such thing. Why then, are these children not identified as gifted and placed in gifted programs? It is definitely due to prejudice – against gifted children and the very idea of giftedness. There are three basic ways that gifted children can be identified: through testing, teacher recommendations, and parent recommendations, and each one fails at some level as a way of identfying gifted children.

Why Testing Fails

Two types of testing can be done to identify gifted children: IQ tests and achievement tests. The general belief is that gifted children will score high on IQ tests, with a score of 130 often being used as a cutoff point for giftedness. In other words, a child must score 130 in order to be considered as “gifted.” In most cases, that is true. Gifted children do tend to score high on IQ tests. However, IQ test scores have a few problems. For one thing, a child can be having a bad day, which means she may not do as well as she might have done. It is definitely possible for a child to get a low score that does not reflect her ability. (The converse is not true – a child cannot get a score *higher* than her ability would indicate – no matter how good of a day she is having.)

Another problem with IQ tests is that schools usually give group IQ tests, the results of which are less reliable and valid that are individual IQ tests. The problems with IQ tests are even greater for minority children, non-native speakers, and poor children as many of them do not have the kind of cultural experiences most IQ tests require.

Achievement tests are also frequently used to identify gifted children. These, however, can be worse than IQ tests as indicators of giftedness. While a majority of gifted children may excel on these tests, not all do, and usually for the same reasons that they don’t always do well on IQ tests.Like IQ Achievement tests can also have cultural biases and may be difficult for non-native speakers. In addition, non-gifted children who are high achievers can score high on achievement tests, which can qualify them for gifted programs.

Why Teacher Recommendations Fail

Another way children are identified for gifted programs is through teacher recommendations. This method seems like a good one. After all, who is in a better position to see what a child can and can’t do? Who is better able to see if a child is advanced in one or more domains? A third grade teacher should surely be able to see which of her students needs more challenging work. Right? Wrong. The problem here is that most teachers have little or no training related to gifted children. They do not know how to recognize gifted children. They rarely know the characteristics of gifted children so they don’t know what to look for.

In most cases, teachers look for the well-behaved high achievers in the classroom. They certainly aren’t looking for the verbally clever class clown. And yet, it is that verbally clever class clown who could be a verbally gifted kid insufficiently challenged by coursework. Because most teachers aren’t trained in identification of gifted children, they have their own bias. They have a bias toward the high achieving student and subscribe to the belief that gifted kids are recognized by how much they achieve and how agreeable they are in class, including how sociable they are with their classmates. This, of course, leaves out the underachieving gifted child as well as the gifted children who have a hard time socializing with their age-mates who are not their intellectual peers.

Why Parent Recommendations Fail

Parent recommendations can be excellent way to identify gifted children. Studies have shown that parents tend to be better at recognizing the advanced abilities of their child than teachers are. We would expect, then, for parent recommendations to count heavily in the indentification process, but they aren’t.

One reason parent recommendations aren’t considered as much as they should be is that these days many parents are competing to get their children into the best possible program. These are the parents who don’t understand that giftedness can’t be created; it can only be nurtured.  Such parents, like many people today, have a bias. They essentially don’t understand giftedness or the special needs of gifted kids. Their goal in trying to get their child into a gifted program is not about getting their child’s special needs met but about helping their child be successful. That’s an admirable goal. But by itself, it has little to do with giftedness.

More affluent parents have a better chance of getting their children into special programs, too. They can afford to live in areas with good schools, schools that have gifted programs. And they can afford the outside resources that help their children do well in school, like tutoring and extracurricular activities. Less affluent parents must rely on the teachers in their child’s school to recognize their child’s abilities and attempt to accommodate them.

Another reason parent recommendations fail as a method of identification of gifted children is that many parents simply aren’t aware that their children are gifted. They may not have heard about the concept or may believe that “all children are gifted.” They may also see that their children are like the rest of the children in the family (even the extended family) and so the behavior and abilities seem normal, typical. It would not occur to them, therefore, to recommend their child for a gifted program.

What These Failures Mean and What We Can Do About It

Because any one method of identifying gifted children is bound to fail some gifted children on some level, experts have suggested that multiple approaches be used. Quite often, all three methods of identification are used, often with different weights being given to the different methods. In many, if not most, cases a parent recommendation carries the least weight while a teacher recommendation carries the most. Sometimes, additional methods are used, such as student recommendations and portfolios of student work. But in each instance, some gifted kids are going to be left out. And many of those left out are among those who need the special services most – underachievers, children from poor families, non-native speakers, and children from racial minorities.

One solution to the identification problem is to admit as many children as possible into the gifted program. Some schools have eliminated their gifted programs altogether, claiming that their goal is to serve the needs of all students and give all students the opportunity to shine. The problem with that solution, however, is that it is difficult to meet the needs of students with a wide range of abilities, particularly when we find negative attitudes toward advanced students. It is particularly difficult when schools believe that children must stay with their age mates in the same grade level regardless of how quickly they learn information and concepts.

The best solution to the problem of identifying gifted children is to see that all teachers get sufficient training in giftedness. Teachers need to be able to recognize gifted traits in all children, particularly when those traits turn out to be exhibited by children who are far from the stereotypical gifted child – the well-behaved high achiever.  They would be able to recognize signs of giftedness in children from minorities, in children who are non-native speakers, and in children who are from poor families without the resources to help their kids outside of school.

Teachers would also be in a position to help parents better understand their gifted child. Eventually, society might stop seeing gifted kids as products of pushy parents. People might finally recognize gifted children and their unique needs. We’re a long way from that, but we need to start somewhere.

Carol BainbridgeEducationTests & TestingIdentification
We know that minority children are underrepresented in gifted programs. Those children can belong to any number of minorities: racial, language, and even economic. This means that children who belong to a racial minority, whose native language is something other than English, or whose families are poor are selected...