The On-going Dilemma of
Effective Identification Practices
in Gifted Education
Joyce VanTassel-Baska, Ed.D.
College of William and Mary
Originally published in The Communicator, vol. 31, in
The identification of gifted children has long been a topic of great debate
in the field of gifted education. More citations in the literature exist on this
topic than on any other in the field. Moreover, it remains one of the most
common problems of program development cited by school district personnel and
state department coordinators in administering programs and services to gifted
There are many reasons for the intractable problems associated with
identification of the gifted. One of them is related to the concept of absolute
versus relative notions of giftedness. Newer definitional structures are attuned
to the idea of relativity as we consider the context of the school, the nature
of the student's background, and the demands of the program in order to make
decisions about individual learners. A second issue that continues to be
problematic is recognition of the range of individual differences within the
group of learners who might be designated "gifted." We tend to spend a great
deal of time deciding who is the last student in the program versus the first
student not recommended. Cutting on a continuum of human ability is a risky
venture and one many times difficult to justify. At the same time that such
debates on identification rage, highly gifted students frequently idle without
extensive and intensive enough services because programs are far more likely to
focus resources on the mildly gifted group which may be larger and demand more
attention. Finally, there is the nagging concern that underrepresented groups
are not adequately being assessed to be included in gifted programs. Thus we
make the test the proverbial messenger to be attacked and continue to search for
a better instrument that may reveal greater parity in performance.
Any one of these issues would be sufficient to keep identification at the top
of concerns for local school districts in planning and implementing programs.
The three taken together guarantee that identification will always be a
Until our beliefs about identification change, little progress can be made in
developing a better system that resolves all of the issues noted. Our task is
not to identify only the truly gifted but also to locate students who
demonstrate undeveloped potential intellectually and in specific areas including
academic, artistic, and leadership domains. Our task is not to select students
for all time but to select them for enhanced instructional opportunities that
may benefit them at a given stage of development. Whether the intervention works
or not, students should be regularly reassessed for new opportunities and
dropped from those that are not meeting their needs. Our task is not to be
gatekeepers to exclude students but rather custodians of promoting student
growth by recognizing discernible strengths and working with the school
community to enhance them whether through the gifted program or another medium.
Establishing numerical cutoffs on relevant criteria may be less useful than
gaining a holistic assessment of students being considered and matching program
to strengths of a particular population.
What do we currently understand about the act of identification that may help
us deal with the difficulties inherent in the process? First of all, many
studies and authors favoring newer conceptual definitions of giftedness
acknowledge the multidimensionality of the phenomenon (Gardner, 1991; Sternberg,
1985). Some students are omnibus gifted, capable across many domains and areas.
Yet the majority of gifted students are not. They have distinct profiles of
strengths and relative weaknesses. Their abilities may be discerned by
performance and not paper and pencil tests. Their giftedness may not be evoked
by the school environment but shine in the context of community. Some may
experience developmental spurts at key stages of development which could not be
discerned earlier. Interest may be piqued at some stage that motivates a student
to develop abilities in relevant areas. In all of these examples, there is a
clear sense that giftedness may be elusive in its manner and context of
We also know that there are both genetic and environmental factors at work in
the manifestation of giftedness. Individuals vary considerably in their ability
to function effectively in various domains. Attention must be paid to the
"rubber band" effect of human potential -- our genetic markers allow for
expansive growth and development but not to an unlimited extent. We can stretch
ourselves within a range based on the genetic potential which we possess. It is
the role of education in the larger environment to provide the experiences which
may stretch the individual potential in the areas of greatest flexibility for
learning. This recognition of pre-existing individual differences would help
educators realize the folly of trying to find a "one size fits all" program of
study or curriculum. As long as differentiated practices are reserved for
labeled special populations, the spirit of individualized learning will always
be in jeopardy. Giftedness does not guarantee entitlement to educational
privilege, but it does call for a flexible response by schools and other
agencies to higher levels of functioning , based on the individual level of
functioning not age.
The concept of degree or extent of giftedness is an important aspect to
consider in developing identification processes. When I directed the talent
search program at Northwestern University, I would have teachers tell me that
seventh grade students who were scoring at the 600 level in mathematics on the
Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) weren't truly precocious in mathematics, even
though their scores placed them in the top 2 % of the population. Only the 700's
met that criterion. What these teachers were noting is the wide band of
difference that exists within a gifted population such that students at the
bottom of a particular group may function very differnetly from those at the top
of the group. In psychometric language, this means that gifted students may vary
among themselves by as much as three standard deviations in respect to mental
functioning in one or more areas. Reading level, for example, in a fifth grade
gifted program could range from seventh to college level. The implications of
this phenomenon for identication is to decide how broad a group might benefit
from a particular intervention and then ensure differentiation of instruction in
the delivery of that intervention to ensure adequate challenge for those at the
top of the group and yet not cause anxiety to set in for those at the bottom.
Wide ranges of abilities within a gifted population have to be tolerated in most
gifted programs since the context of delivery frequently requires sufficient
numbers of students to justify the special intervention.
We also know that the recognition of advanced behavior is the most critical
variable in determining who can best profit form advanced work and instruction.
To deny services to students clearly advanced in reading, mathematics, the arts,
or other domains because they have not been formally assessed calls into
question a school system's capacity to respond to individual differences. This
principle of responding to advanced student behaviors is central to including
teacher, parent, and community input into the identification process. Use of
domain-specific checklists is one way to assess such behavior in context. Such
checklists also contribute important insights into effective programming for
Work in talent development (e.g. Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Simonton, 1999) has
convinced most people in our field that ability alone may be insufficient to
predict success in gifted programs, let alone life endeavors. Non-intellectual
factors like motivation, personality, persistence, and concentration impact
greatly on creative productivity at particular stages of development but also
over the lifespan. Thus our identification processes may need to be sensitive to
students whose ability threshold may be slightly lower but whose capacity and
zeal to do work in a given domain may be very high. Tapping into these
non-intellectual strengths can best be accomplished through performance and
portfolio-based assessment protocols coupled with careful observation of
performance over time.
What are best practices for identification based on research?
Currently there is a call for a new paradigm for identification, in
line with the new constructs of giftedness that have been
conceptualized (Passow & Frasier, 1996).
This new paradigm of identification would recognize the different
ways in which students display giftedness and would call for more varied
and authentic assessment. Instead of relying on intelligence and
achievement test scores solely for identification, multiple criteria
would be used, including more non-traditional measures such as observing
students interacting with a variety of learning opportunities (Passow &
Frasier, 1996) it is a belief of many in the field of gifted education
that new conceptions of giftedness and a new paradigm for identifying
and selecting students will help minority and disadvantaged students
become more represented in gifted programs (VanTassel-Baska, Patton, &
Prillaman, 1991; Ford, 1996).
Part of the process of non-traditional assessment involves trying to
tap into fluid rather than crystalized abilities. Dynamic assessment is
one such non-traditional approach used to assess cognitive abilities
that are often not apparent when most forms of standardized tests are
used. This type of assessment usually consists of a
test-intervention-retest format, with the focus being on the improvement
students make after an intervention, based on learning cognitive
strategies related to mastery of the testing task (Kirschenbaum, 1998).
Research evidence also suggests that disadvantaged learners perform better on
tasks that emphasize fluid over crystalized intelligence (Mills & Tissot, 1995),
and spatial reasoning over verbal and mathematical (Naglieri, 1999). By
employing an assessment approach that contains a strong spatial component ,
disparities between scores by socio-economic status (SES) levels or ethnic group
may be reduced (B. Bracken, presentation at College of William and Mary, April,
1999). Thus using instruments like the Matrix Analysis Test and the Ravens
Matrices may yield somewhat different populations of students than the use of
traditional intelligence tests that emphasize verbal tasks. The new UNIT test
also offers promise in this regard as a full scale measure.
There is also a need to employ a two-stage process of screening and
identification to ensure that appropriate measures are used in the selection of
students for a program. It is not highly defensible to use group achievement and
intelligence test score data as the final arbiters for selection by merely
raising the cutoff, let's say to 98%. Many times school districts will have
large numbers of students who would qualify at 95%. To use a norm-referenced
test that is grade-level calibrated to make judgements about students at the top
end is not justifiable, given the problems of ceiling effect. A better and more
defensible strategy is to use off level aptitude and achievement measures to
ascertain a true dispersion of the student scores in order to select the most
able. Off level instrumentation like the PLUS test, the SCAT test and the SAT
all provide such information so that identification can be more precise. Use of
these instruments over the past 25 years has continued to demonstrate
effectiveness and efficiency in discerning able students' range of functioning
in critical domains (Benbow & Stanley, 1996).
The use of measures that are relevant to program emphasis is also a crucial
consideration. Using verbal measures to decide who should be in a math program
makes no sense. Ensuring that an identification system is geared to the nature
of the program intervention is crucial, especially at the second stage of the
process. Thus, if the program emphasis is writing, a writing sample would be
included at the identification stage, or if the program emphasis is science, a
performance-based science assessment or science project portfolio would be
included to make final selections. Such authentic assessment data strengthen the
case for selecting the most apt individual students for participation in
carefully defined program areas (VanTassel-Baska, 1998)
The use of identification protocols that are appropriate at different stages
in the development of students is also a best practice in the field. Early
childhood identification procedures, because of age and lack of contact with the
school, have to consider parental feedback more carefully, use testing data more
judiciously, and consider advanced performance tasks as an important part of the
process. At secondary level, based on different organizational contexts,
identification procedures need to be distinctive in respect to protocols for
finding students in a broader range of talent areas and for considering
domain-specific approaches based on departmental courses of study.
Finally, the identification process must be equitable in respect to
selection, validation, and placement of students. Making placement decisions
based on individual profile data is also considered best practice as it allows
professional judgement to be exercised rather than just allowing a numerical
cut-off score on a matrix model to determine placement (Borland & Wright, 1994).
Identification will continue to present a challenge to educators of
the gifted. Yet thoughtful consideration of and reflection on various
problems, issues, and current best practices can make the process more
feasible and credible in school contexts.
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"equity" can lead to inequity for high-potential students.
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gifted, economically disadvantaged students. Gifted Child Quarterly, 38, 164-171.
Csikszentmihaly, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery
and invention. NY: Harper Collins
Ford, D. Y. (1996). Reversing underachievement among gifted black students:
Promising programs and practices. New York: Teachers College Press.
Gardner, H. (1991). Creating minds. New York: Basic Books
Kirschenbaum, R.J. (1998). Dynamic assessment and its use with underserved
gifted and talented. Gifted Child Quarterly, 42, 140-147.
Mills, C. & Tissot, S. (1995). Identifying academic potential in students from
underrepresented populations: Is using the Ravens Progressive Matrices a good
idea? Gifted Child Quarterly, 39 (4), 209-217.
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VanTassel-Baska, J. (1998). Excellence in educating the gifted (3rd ed.).
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VanTassel-Baska, J., Patton, J., & Prillamon, D. (1991). Gifted youth at
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printed from Hoagies' Gifted Education Page,
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