Assessing Gifted Children
by Julia Osborn
Used with permission
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Assessing gifted children is similar to and different from assessing other
types of children. Though areas to be assessed are similar for all, for gifted
children, the assessment techniques and tests require special characteristics.
While most professionals are trained to assess many kinds of children, few are
specifically trained to assess in this particular area. The general perception
is that these youngsters, with abilities and strengths in many areas, have no
special needs, educational or otherwise, that merit serious clinical attention.
For this reason, it is important that parents who suspect that their child may
be gifted search for a professional with experience in working with this
population. Knowledge about these practices can help parents with this search.
Testing versus assessment.
These two activities are frequently discussed together and criticized together,
when, in fact, they are quite different. As a psychologist, I have done both and
will continue to do both for very different reasons. Testing, or the individual
administration of a standardized test, means presenting test items according to
very specific pre-set directions and following an exact verbal script. The
results are usually reported as numbers. This is a limited activity and the
information that it provides is similarly limited. Assessment, on the other
hand, includes standardized test administration but goes well beyond it. Good
test administration should be the same from person to person; that is, it should
be independent of personal experience and personal viewpoints. Assessment,
especially clinical assessment, is highly dependent upon training, theoretical
orientation, personal experience, research knowledge and clinical experience. In
good test administration, the person administering the test should not have a
major impact on the test results; in assessment, the person doing the assessment
does have a major impact on the final result. For these reasons, assessing
children is part science and part art. The science part is straightforward and
largely concerns testing. The art part is difficult to describe, difficult to
teach and essential.
Age of child.
All tests and assessments vary with the age of the child, as we expect that
children will do different things at different ages. In general, we chose to use
an instrument that has been standardized with children of a specific age without
regard to their ability levels. Yet, gifted children will accomplish a variety
of things earlier than other children or will accomplish them at a higher level
than their age peers will. Assessment must adapt to this reality. There are two
basic strategies for making this adaptation; the easiest is to use a test
standardized for older children (this is the out of level testing that is used
in the talent searches). For example, most children do not read before entering
school, and therefore most assessments of preschool children do not routinely
include reading. Some gifted preschool children do read early, and an adequate
assessment of them should include measures of reading. One way to accomplish
this is to give an above age or grade level of the Gates MacGinitie Reading
Test. A second strategy is to informally look for behaviors and skills that
usually appear in older children. For example, an informal strategy for reading
assessment is to take an inventory of the books that the child has read in the 6
months prior to the assessment. The most important step is not to make
assumptions about the child's level of accomplishment based upon age or upon
grade, but rather select test materials that will permit a young child to
demonstrate high level skills in a variety of areas.
Each child, gifted or not, has his or her own history. When a child is tested,
for example, in the admission process for private schools or selective programs,
parent information is often not collected. In assessment, however, the first
step is to interview the parents to obtain the child's history in the areas of
general development, education, health, social interactions and family
interactions. As a parent, you should be wary of any professional who plans to
evaluate a child without taking a developmental history.
The careful collection of information from parents, via report forms,
checklists and most importantly direct interviewing, becomes the foundation upon
which the individual nature of the assessment is built. Parents, speaking to a
professional for the first time, should feel free to say that they think that
their child may be gifted. They should then hear a question like-"Why do you
think that your child may be gifted? What does your child do that suggests
this?" thus opening the door for a frank and complete history of the child's
development and behavior. As with any interview technique, the value of the
information obtained depends upon the skill of the interviewer and upon the
biases of the interviewer. Several remarkable studies have had a particular
impact on my thinking about the developmental pathways of gifted children and I
want to direct your attention to those studies (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5).
In the academic world, there are debates about the meaning and the value of
intelligence tests in general; at parent and school meetings, I have been asked
many questions about intelligence tests and the meanings of different score
patterns. After working with hundreds of children, my own view of the value of
intelligence tests is this: when I administer an individual intelligence test, I
gain necessary but not sufficient information about an individual child. Among
the most commonly used tests for assessing the gifted are the Weschler
Intelligence Scale for Children-Third Edition (WISC-III), the Stanford-Binet:
Fourth Edition (SB:IV) and, yes, the Stanford-Binet: Form L-M (SB:LM). I use all
three at different times. For gifted children, I have frequently observed that a
score on one intelligence test cannot be converted to a score on another
intelligence by means of any formula. These tests provide information that is
not interchangeable and the scores that they generate are not interchangeable.
If I think that a gifted child may have a learning disability, I use the
WISC-III based upon my clinical experience and because there is a body of useful
research on this application (6). If I am interested in a school age child's
high-level math reasoning or visual-spatial reasoning, I use the SB: IV as I
have had numerous experiences with young elementary school children who
demonstrate skill in subtests normally reserved for older children, especially
the subtests of number series, equation building, paper folding and matrices.
However, both the WISC-III and the SB: IV have a serious general limitation due
to their low ceiling. The tests were designed to be most useful for children who
are close to average and are less useful for children who are far from average
(e.g. retarded or gifted). In fact, the original creator of the Weschler tests,
David Weschler stated that "My scales are meant for people who score between 70
and 130. They are clinical tests." When reminded that his tests were commonly
used by psychologists for such children, he said, of the psychologists, "Then
that is their misfortune. It's not what I tell them to do, and it's not what a
good clinician ought to do. They should know better."(7, p xiv).
One word about the SB:LM is in order. Many people mistakenly believe that the
publication of the SB:IV meant that the SB: LM should not and could not be used.
That is not true. There are serious and well documented reasons for continuing
to use this test (3,8). I especially like the SB: LM for its very high level
verbal reasoning items, which, in my experience, tap an ability to think,
verbally and mathematically, in a complex way. However, there is a serious
limitation in using this test, namely, the reluctance of school personnel to
accept the test results. Several years ago, there was a lively debate about the
relative merits of the SB: LM and the SB: IV in the identification of gifted
children, with some favoring the use of the SB: IV (8) and others the use of the
SB: LM (9). Putting the issue to the clinical test, by administering both tests
to the same children, I have found that with the SB: IV, it is difficult,
sometimes impossible, to distinguish between highly and exceptionally
intellectually gifted children. To put it simply, if I want to know whether or
not an individual child fits the characteristics of an exceptionally gifted
child, as presented by Dr. Mirica Gross (3) in her extensive research, then I
must administer the SB: LM. The Riverside Publishing Company reports plans to
incorporate some of the best features of the SB: LM into the formation of a new
test, the Stanford-Binet: Fifth Edition. However, it will be years until that
new test is ready, and has proven to be useful for gifted students.
One of the clear ways in which gifted children differ from other children is in
the ease and speed with which they master academic skills. The more extreme the
child is in intellectual ability, the more likely it is that the child will not
fit in well with a standard curriculum. For that reason, I find that it is
critical to evaluate the child's abilities to decode words, comprehend printed
passages, understand math processes, complete math calculations, produce legible
print or script and to write varied types of material. Gifted children, in the
early school years, vary widely in the degree to which these skills are
developed. Of the children I have seen, highly and exceptionally gifted
children, often, but not always, have some school skills that are much more
advanced than the skills of more moderately gifted children. These children, in
turn, have some skills that are much more advanced than the skills of average
To convincingly document extreme skill development in any of these areas, it
is essential to use an individual educational assessment that has a very high
ceiling as schools often do not possess or obtain this information. This occurs
for several reasons: first, many schools do not routinely test all their
elementary children until they reach a pre-established grade, which can be as
late as 3rd or 4th grade, and, second, the types of standardized, normed,
group-administered tests that are given in schools to classrooms of children
often have such low ceilings that they cannot distinguish well among the
children in the top 3 to 5 percentiles.
Individual assessment can be adapted to document the differening academic
levels of children in the top 3 percentiles on standardized tests. The talent
searches, which are available for 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders are very
important tools in documenting highly developed math and verbal aptitude. For
elementary children in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades, a good assessment practice
is the use of individual tests that go up to a 12th grade level of difficulty.
By using such tests, there is no pre-conceived ceiling that is imposed on a
child by the nature of the test construction. There are several individually
administered academic tests with high ceilings, for example, the
Woodcock-Johnson and the Peabody Individual Achievement Test. I prefer the
Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement for early elementary gifted students, as
it includes what, I feel, is a more realistic assessment of reading. In the KTEA,
the child is required to read and demonstrate comprehension of printed
paragraphs. In many other tests, the child's reading comprehension skill is
measured by merely filling in a missing word in a sentence. In my experience
this less demanding task, the cloze procedure, can lead to inflated and
inaccurate scores of reading comprehension.
Gifted children often possess abilities in areas that are well outside the realm
of standardized tests; they may possess talents in music, art, creative writing,
scientific thinking and group leadership, to name only a few. Using these
abilities, the children may complete activities or undertake projects that no
one their age may have imagined or attempted. In order to understand these
qualities and to begin to appreciate the importance of these activities in the
lives of these children, I have had to be creative in my assessment strategies.
Certainly, portfolios of art and writing are useful, as are videotapes of
performances and activities. Constructions of all types have made an appearance
in my office; some of them can be captured with a Polaroid camera. Children's
efforts in these areas often represent hours of committed labor and may indicate
unusual and emerging life interests. As these activities are often undertaken
outside of school, parent information about these projects is vital. It is often
equally important to brainstorm with parents about the ways they can encourage
and support their children in these activities. There is no simple,
standardized, normed method for accomplishing this; consequently, this is not a
testing activity but it is an essential assessment activity.
The role of intuition.
This topic, which could also be called clinical judgment, is perhaps, the single
most important one, in discussing the assessment of children and the one that is
the most difficult to describe. To a substantial extent it is based upon reading
the non-verbal communication from the child. This aspect of the communication
includes many factors: the child's body position, body movements, use of
gestures, eye glances, tone of voice, intonation and various approach and
avoidance behaviors. Reading the non-verbal communication is a complex process
and one that provides vital information about the child. The more children I
evaluate, the more I depend upon this aspect of assessment. While it is
important throughout the entire process, I am most aware of it during the first
minutes after meeting a child. Mostly, it resembles a sensation of waiting, of
alert waiting for the child. At those moments, I try to set aside all I have
heard or read about the child and simply respond to what occurs. To do this
successfully, I have to concentrate fully and I often respond in ways that I
have not preplanned. To a great extent, I depend upon the initial impressions,
feelings and ideas that occur to me in the moments after I meet the child.
Children chose to bring in photographs, trophies, books, stuffed toys,
construction projects, art or other projects; responding enthusiastically is
easy and welcome. Other children, sometimes the ones who bring in nothing, make
it plain that they would rather be anywhere else in the world. At times, I find
myself saying almost before I say hello, "You look like you’d rather be anywhere
but here." Children are usually grateful for the acceptance it implies. Other
children, painfully shy, look like they wish they could just disappear. Sitting
down in the waiting room, chatting with their parents, inviting their parents
into the testing room allows the child to minimize the interaction with me. With
my attention directed toward their parents, they feel less pressure to interact
and they will often ease themselves into the conversation, as they are able. For
children who are quiet or hesitant to speak, allowing periods of silence and
offering non-verbal toys (origami, puzzles, markers and paper) helps ease the
transition into the assessment process. Other children need to have a brief
introductory session and then return, later, to a now somewhat familiar place
for longer, more focused assessment sessions. While some of these variations can
be anticipated in advance by discussions with parents, others are, essentially,
The most useful preparatory technique is to tell the parents to help the
child select something important or well loved to bring to the session. Allowing
them to choose gives them an initial sense that their needs and opinions will be
valued and it provides an immediate and engaging topic for conversation. Also
importantly, this activity gives the child some small area of control over a
process that will be largely outside of his or her control. Finally, it
communicates the message that, at least part of, the assessment will be about
what they like and value.
My subjective experiences.
I have found that assessing gifted children, is a qualitatively different
experience than the assessment of other types of children. First of all, it
takes 1 ˝ to 2 times longer to administer high ceiling tests to gifted children
than to average children. The more extreme the ability of the child, the longer
the session. The reasons for this are straightforward. Gifted children generally
answer more questions correctly, produce more elaborated answers, ask more
detailed questions and become more deeply engaged in testing than do other
children. For all these reasons, it can take along time to reach a test ceiling
or the end of a subtest. The tendency of gifted children to be more positive and
engaged during the testing means that they are more difficult to disengage and
that they are more reluctant to leave at the end. Breaks and stopping points
must, more often, be imposed on gifted children. Also, the interpersonal
dynamics in the testing sessions are more complex. I often have the sensation
that I am being closely observed and that the nuances of what I say and do are
being noted. In short, I find that I need to be particularly focused, alert and
engaged when I am assessing gifted children. I also need to offer more
explanations for why I do what I do. Experience has taught me that if I do not
offer explanations, the children will invent their own, sometime quite incorrect
explanations, of what I am doing or thinking.
All assessment processes involve providing information to parents and often to
teachers. In the case of gifted children, I find that their parents ask more
questions, expect more fully developed answers and appreciate references to
relatively complex reading material. Teachers and parents alike often have to
cope with feelings of uncertainty about how best to respond to the child's
needs, and questions of best educational practices are constantly raised.
Teachers and parents are often appreciative of straightforward information on
practices like subject matter acceleration, grade skipping, radical acceleration
and home schooling. Frequently, there is an urgently felt need to solve
educational problems of fit and there is a great need for information on a
variety of successful techniques. Obtaining and sharing this information is an
important part of the assessment process. In many fascinating ways, the growth
of the Internet has given parents quick access to each other and to information
of varying quality. The resourcefulness and persistence of parents constantly
impresses me as they seek appropriate adaptations for their children in the
schools. My role, at that stage, is to provide links between the parent, the
school and the body of knowledge about promising educational practices. In this
regard, materials supplied by the ERIC system (10) and the work of the National
Research Center on the Gifted and the Talented (11) has been invaluable and I
encourage parents to obtain materials from both sources. It is my opinion that
no assessment is complete until some meaningful changes have taken place in the
daily life of the child, however, it is often the parents who must see to it
that those changes take place.
1. Bloom, B. S. (1985) Developing Talent In Young People. New York:
2. Gottfried, A. W., Gottfried, A. E., Bathurst, K. & Guerin, D. W. (1994).
Gifted IQ: Early Developmental Aspects: The Fullerton Longitudinal Study. New
York: Plenum Press.
3. Gross, M. U. M., (1993) Exceptionally Gifted Children. London: Routledge.
4. Hart, B. & Risley, T. D. (1995) Meaningful Differences in the Everyday
Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing
5. Roedell, W. C., Jackson, N. E. and Robinson, H. B. (1980) Gifted Young
Children. New York: Teachers College Press.
6. Fox., L. H., Brody, L. & Tobin, D. (1983) Learning-Disabled Gifted
Children: Identification and Programming. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
7. Kaufman, A. (1994) Intelligent Testing with the WISC-III. New York: John
Wiley & Sons.
8. Robinson, N. (1992) Which Binet for the Brightest? Stanford-Binet IV, Of
Course! Time Marches On!
Roeper Review, 151, 32-34
9. Silverman, L. & Kearney, K (1992) Don’t Throw Away the Old Binet.
Roeper Review, 1591, 32- 34.
10. The ERIC documents on gifted children can be obtained at: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education, The Council for Exceptional
Children, 1920 Association Drive, Reston, VA 22091-1589. 1-800-328-0272.
11. The Product list from NRCGT can be obtained by contacting the
Dissemination Coordinator, University of Connecticut, The National Research
Center on the Gifted and Talented, 362 Fairfield Rd., U-7 Storrs, CT 06269-2007.
Originally published in "Understanding our Gifted".
Reprinted with permission of the author.