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What is Highly Gifted?  Exceptionally Gifted?  Profoundly Gifted?  And What Does It Mean?

by Carolyn K., director, Hoagies' Gifted Education Page

The question is often asked, is my child highly gifted, or exceptionally gifted, or profoundly gifted?  What does his score mean? What does her level of giftedness imply?

These are important questions, and the answers vary.  The terms for the levels of giftedness -- moderately, highly, exceptionally and profoundly gifted -- are not standardized, and they seem to mean different things to different people, and based on scores from different tests.  Let's start with the numbers that various folks suggest:

Level of Giftedness Full Scale IQ score WISC-IV, WPPSI-III
source: Assessment of Children
Extended IQ score WISC-IV
source: Technical Report #7 WISC–IV Extended Norms and publisher's 2008 NAGC presentation
Full Scale IQ score SB-5
source: Gifted Minds Assessment & Counseling
Full Scale IQ score WISC-III, WPPSI-R, SB-4, SB L-M
gifted or moderately gifted (G or MG) 130-138 130-145 124-133 130 - 145 (132-148 SB-4)
highly gifted (HG) 138-145 145-160 133-145 145 - 160 (148-164 SB-4)
exceptionally gifted (EG) 145-152 160+ 145+ 160 - 180 (SB L-M only)
profoundly gifted (PG) 152-160 175+ 145++ 180 and above (SB L-M only)

At 160, you may have noticed that the score ranges change.  Instead of having 15 points (the standard deviation on the Wechsler IQ tests) between levels, the highest range is organized as if the standard deviation had been 16 all along.  This is because scores over 160 (Wechsler or Stanford Binet 5) or 164 (Stanford Binet 4) may only be obtained by using the very old Stanford Binet form L-M test... and now, by using the Extended Norms on the WISC-IV!

But it isn't as easy as just locating your child's score in a row.  You need to know about test ceilings. 

All intelligence tests have ceilings, highest possible scores.  Most tests have subtests, and each subtest has a ceiling, sometimes the same as the other subtests, sometimes different, and these contribute to lowering the overall score if a child is not evenly or "globally" gifted.  For example, the Wechsler intelligence tests were not designed to differentiate scores above 130 (WISC-R and WISC-III) or 145 (WISC-IV):

"He rejected most attempts that I made to add easy or hard items to the WISC-R saying firmly, 'My scales are meant for people with average or near-average intelligence, clinical patients who score between 70 and 130.'" "They are clinical tests." When I reminded him that psychologists commonly use his scales for the extremes, and want to make distinctions with the 'below 70' and 'above 130' groups, he answered, "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." -- Intelligent testing with the WISC-III by Alan S. Kaufman, New York : Wiley, ©1994

"A flat profile of scores in the 14 to 16 range [indicates] that the child is gifted intellectually and may profit from instruction that capitalizes on the child's exceptional intellectual skills." -- Assessment of Children WISC-IV and WPPSI-III Supplement by Jerome M. Sattler and Ron Dumont

Sattler and Dumont continue to say that the WISC-IV is not a good measure for children scoring outside of 3 deviations from the mean. An average subtest score of 14 or 15 is 2 standard deviations outside the mean, an average subtest score of 16 or 17 is 3 standard deviations outside the mean. Sattler and Dumont do not discuss the use of the WISC-IV above those levels at all.  However, the 2008 Harcourt Assessment WISC-IV Technical Report #7 WISC–IV Extended Norms (requires Adobe Reader) is changing this.  See below for more details.

Given the much lower scores resulting from the newest generation of tests (WISC-IV, SB-5 and WJ-III cognitive), professionals who work with the gifted are suggesting a new set of scores and descriptive levels of giftedness, beginning at 120 to 125 for "moderately" gifted, and progressing to 142 to 145+ for "profoundly" gifted.  But these levels are still under investigation.
Intelligence Test Test Ceiling Subtest Ceilings
Wechsler tests
     WPPSI-R (ages 3-7)
     WISC-III (ages 6-17)
     WAIS (ages 16 +)
160 full scale
     standard deviation (s.d.) 15
subtest ceiling of 19, s.d. 3,
10 subtests plus up to 3 alternate subtests, organized into 5 Verbal and 5 Performance subtests; subscale ceiling of 155 Verbal and 155 Performance
Wechsler tests
     WPPSI-III (ages 3-7)
     WISC-IV (ages 6-17)
160 full scale
     standard deviation 15

210 extended scale, with subtest ceilings of up to 28 (Harcourt Assessment WISC-IV Technical Report #7 WISC–IV Extended Norms)

subtest ceiling of 19, s.d. 3,
10 subtests plus up to 3 alternate subtests, organized into four composite scores: Verbal Comprehension, Perceptual Reasoning, Working Memory, and Processing Speed
Stanford Binet, Fourth Edition 164
     standard deviation 16
subtest ceiling of 82, s.d. 8,
4 areas ceiling 164, organized into four composite scores: Verbal, Abstract/Visual, Quantitative, and Short Term Memory, containing about 6 subtests total
Stanford Binet 5 160
     standard deviation 15
subtest ceiling of 19, s.d. 3
Differential Abilities Scales (DAS) 175 (lower at ages approaching 17)
     standard deviation 15
subtest T-score ceiling of 80 (lower at ages approaching 6 on preschool or 13 on school-age test), s.d. 10, organized into Verbal, Nonverbal Reasoning, and Spatial Ability (school-age only)

How do you know if your child "hit the ceiling?"  It depends on the test, and some additional information from the tester.  Here are the questions to ask...  If the child had continued getting questions right could he have scored any higher, or did he reach the highest score for his age on this subtest (usually a 19 on WISC / SB-5, but sometimes lower)?  If the child could not score any higher, that's a ceiling.  Did the child reach the termination criteria for that subtest (usually less than x questions right of y consecutive questions asked, but completion criteria varies by test and subtest)?  If not, the test ran out of questions that might have offered a higher score for the child.  That's a ceiling.

There are also achievement tests, which offer a standard score, that is a score based on a mean of 100, and a standard deviation of some number, commonly 15 or 16, to match the Wechsler or Stanford Binet, respectively.  You might receive a total score from an achievement test that looks like an IQ score, but this score offers an IQ based on what the child has already learned, not on how the child thinks or her potential.  Some people consider this sufficiently similar to IQ - what a child has learned is based on his capability for learning - but thanks to environment, schooling, learning differences or other reasons, this may not always be the case.

If you do accept a standard score generated from an achievement test as an IQ score for that child, you again need to be aware of the test ceilings, and other weaknesses.  Some achievement tests are written for specific grade levels, and have few questions above or below that single grade level.  Other achievement tests are designed to identify learning weaknesses than to give an accurate overall score.  No test is perfect. 

Additional scoring methods

Now that the new versions of the WISC and SB tests have been out for a few years, publishers have added additional scoring methods, since the new "full scale" score includes a number of factors not closely correlated to "g" or general intelligence, including Short Term Memory and Processing Speed.  In these subtests, gifted children scored at means similar to average children, so these sub-scores often dramatically and falsely lower the full scale score.

For the WISC-IV, psychologists should also offer the General Ability Index (GIA). if appropriate.  This index removes lower Short Term Memory and Processing Speed scores from the full scale score, resulting in a score more highly correlated to giftedness.  But the instructions for this calculation didn't come with the original WISC-IV test kit, and it's up to the psychologist to keep current with the publisher, and download the directions for the GAI calculation from their website: Harcourt Assessment WISC-IV Technical Report #4 General Ability Index (requires Adobe Reader).  Also read the NAGC position paper supporting the use of General Ability Index in place of the Full Scale score on the WISC-IV in gifted identification: Use of the WISC-IV for Gifted Identification.  For links to additional bulletins on the WISC-IV and its related tests, visit An Inventory of Tests: Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children

Similar scoring recommendations for gifted students are published for the SB-5 by its publisher: Special Composite Scores for the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, Fifth Edition (requires Adobe Reader).  For links to additional bulletins on the SB-5, visit An Inventory of Tests: Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales.

In 2008, the publisher of the WISC-IV added an Extended IQ score to the WISC-IV scoring, described in Harcourt Assessment WISC-IV Technical Report #7 WISC–IV Extended Norms (requires Adobe Reader).  This Extended IQ score should be calculated for students who score 18 or 19 on two or more of the WISC-IV subtests.  Depending on the subtest, extended subtest scores of up to 28 (instead of 19) are available, and Extended IQ scores of up to 210 are available.  This extended scoring gives children credit for their correct answers above the previous subtest ceiling of 19, allowing differentiation of levels of giftedness well above the previous test ceilings.

Levels of Giftedness

The next question is harder to answer... what does this level of giftedness imply? 

There is the numerical answer: a child of IQ 160 is as different from a moderately gifted child of 130, as that child is from an average child of 100.  But IQ scores are no longer derived from a ratio, with the numerical difference between scores indicating the variation.  Today's IQ tests score on a curve, so that the difference between 100 and 115 is far less than the difference between 130 and 145, and the difference between 130 and 145 is far less than the difference between 145 and 160, though the ranges appear similar numerically. 

And there are lots of different levels of development to consider in each child.  There is intellectual development, the development measured by an IQ test.  There is also physical development - gross and fine motor skills, social and emotional development, and spiritual development.  And all of these development levels characterize the gifted child. 

Beyond the numbers

Old "common wisdom" said that a gifted child would be inherently weak in physical or social / emotional development (or both) - it was considered "a fact" that a strength in one area was offset by a weakness in another.  Gifted children were seen as skinny, poor-eye-sighed children.  Terman's research back in the 1930's attempted to disprove this "knowledge."  He succeeded, but his research methods are now considered questionable.  His studies were racist and sexist, and he often "helped" those students who proved the most gifted on his measures.  This interference means that his results cannot be accurately determined.  More current research continues to support the conclusion that gifted children are not inherently weaker in any other developmental area.

Newer "wisdom" suggests that although gifted children are advanced intellectually, their physical and social / emotional development is on par with their chronological age.  This, too, is not borne out by the research.  Miraca Gross is continuing her research of highly gifted children.  Gross has found that the social / emotional development of those kept with their age peers was the least advanced, with significantly lower scores on self-esteem than those allowed to move forward in a radical fashion with their intellectual peers. (Gross, Exceptionally Gifted Children)  So this wisdom, with respect to the social / emotional development of the gifted, is not born out by research.

Each gifted child must be considered individually.  Some highly, exceptionally and profoundly gifted children are happiest placed by their academic achievement, learning side-by-side with students who are intellectual peers.  Others prefer a social placement, learning with peers who have good social interaction and can be friends, in spite of being somewhat older than the gifted child.  For a lucky few, a placement is available that offers both intellectual and social / emotional fit.

Most uncommon is the exceptionally or profoundly gifted child who fits best in the age/grade tracked classroom.  This fit is likely to work for such children only in the congregated gifted classroom.

It is important to remember that, in any educational decision, deciding to stay with the status quo, to keep the child in his age/grade or current grade, is at least as important a decision as the decision to accelerate the child.  Either placement decision should be considered in great detail, weighing the social / emotional and academic benefits and costs, along with any other factors that might influence the decision.  Staying with the current placement is not a "safer" option.

Things to watch out for, with any child in any educational placement, include underachievement, where the child is intentionally underachieving to fit in.  This kind of "underground" behavior often leads to the adult Impostor Syndrome, where the individual does not believe she is capable of what she does, and often worries a great deal about being "caught."  Depression often occurs in misplaced gifted children.  It is difficult, at best, to spend one's days, hour upon hour and day after day, in a classroom where you do not feel comfortable, and can only watch those around you learn what you have mastered months or years earlier.  Another common outcome is behavioral difficulties - children often cannot tolerate their situation, but do not know how to change it, and feel trapped.  Acting out is common.

What does highly gifted, or exceptionally gifted, or profoundly gifted mean?

A child's level of giftedness will mean something different to every child, in every family, school, and life situation.  No one can say, your child is profoundly gifted, so they cannot survive in traditional school.  This may be true for many pg children, but not for all.  There are no hard-and-fast rules...

But there are some generalizations.  Moderately gifted children tend to do well in the regular classroom, with the added challenge of differentiation, a gifted pull-out enrichment program or mild acceleration in their areas of strength.  Highly gifted children tend to do well in congregated gifted classes, such as offered in a few larger districts across the United States.  These classes are most successful when they use a more in-depth curriculum, which also moves at a faster pace.  Gifted children are different not only in their faster learning, but by their deeper interest and level of understanding.  Both these differences must be addresses in a successful educational situation.

Exceptionally and profoundly gifted children often need more, and may do well in schools by using a combination of congregated gifted classrooms, subject and grade acceleration.  Congregated classrooms of only eg/pg children would probably be more valuable to these children's education, but there are often not enough of these children in any one school district to make the practice viable.  Exceptionally and profoundly gifted children are commonly homeschooled for some part of their educational path.  This is not a requirements, but parents of these children often find themselves with no other option for a year, or a school level.  And this can be the best alternative for some children. 

Twice exceptional children, those with both high levels of giftedness and learning disabilities, are great candidates for homeschooling.  But these children, too, have other options.  There are at least two public school districts in the country that offers programs for moderately gifted students who also have learning disabilities (Montgomery county, MD, and outside Minneapolis, MN).  There are also a few private schools for twice exceptional children (Boulder, CO and several others across the country, see Schools for the Gifted).  But this is very unusual.  Other twice exceptional children do best in school, but at a higher grade level, closer to their academic and social peers, with accommodations for their area of weakness.

What is right for the highly, exceptionally, or profoundly gifted child varies widely with each child.  The best thing that parents, educators, and others working with that child can do is to actually work with the child.  Make adjustments, offer opportunities, and try new placements, even if they are not commonly used for most children.  The highly, exceptionally, or profoundly gifted child is not "most children."  He is a unique individual, for whom modifications to the program must be made along the way, for both his gifted abilities and his learning disabilities.

And he deserves to be a child, to learn and play, to be taught and teach himself, to grow in physical, intellectual, social / emotional and spiritual ways, to adult-hood.  Even if this means Kindergarten at 4, or high school 3 years early, or college courses at 12. And he deserves to play... in his own way, with his own friends, at his favorite games... no matter how different these are from what society sees as "appropriate" for a child of his age.

For more information
on tests and their results, read Why Should I Have My Child Tested? and Why do my child's test scores vary from test to test?

©2002-2012 Carolyn K., director of Hoagies' Gifted Education Page
May not be republished without permission.

Last updated December 01, 2020

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