ERIC Identifier: ED480431
Publication Date: 2003/06/00
Author: Mary Ruth Coleman
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education
The Identification of Students Who Are Gifted. ERIC
Few areas in the education of children with exceptionalities are as
controversial and critical as appropriate identification of children who
are gifted. The controversies involve all the pros and cons of labeling
children as well as a variety of political issues. Yet, identification
remains critical to ensuring that children receive the services they need
to thrive in school. This digest discusses the identification of students
who are gifted, the difficulties in the identification process, appropriate
identification practices, and procedures that can help with identification.
Identification: A Means Not an End
School systems often face difficult decisions when developing procedures
for identification. The amount of money allotted to gifted education must
include both identification and programming, while providing a balance
between the two. School system administrators run the risk of using more
energy, resources, and precision planning in the identification process
than in the services provided once a student is identified. Some states
even require identification but do not require the provision of services
(Coleman & Gallagher, 1995). With limited funding, schools must make
tradeoffs between using individual assessments of children and using good
group measures. Ideally, information gleaned during identification would
be used to guide curriculum and instruction for each child. In any case,
identification must be the means to securing appropriate services to meet
the needs of the student, not an end in itself.
Problems We Face in the Identification Process
To be appropriate, the identification process must accurately find the
students. It must neither overlook students who need services nor identify
students who do not. This is not easy. Historically, the identification
of gifted students has been plagued with the following dilemmas that must
- Disproportionate Representation. Children from culturally/linguistically
diverse and/or economically disadvantaged families and gifted children
with disabilities have been dramatically underrepresented in programs for
gifted students (Castellano, 2003; National Research Council, 2002). The
reasons are complex and include an overreliance on standardized tests,
narrow conceptions of intelligence and the resulting definitions of giftedness,
and the procedures and policies that guide local and state gifted programs.
A child's pre-school experiences and the nature of early classroom experiences
are probably just as important because they set the stage for later academic
success. No amount of effort has thusfar produced a successful long-term
solution; despite decades of efforts, the underrepresentation dilemma persists.
- Disregard for Theoretical Knowledge of Intelligence. Intelligence
is multifaceted, developmental, and dynamic and can either be inhibited
or enhanced by experiences. When we rely on the use of a single criterion
such as an IQ score to act as a gatekeeper or rely on theories with little
empirical grounding, our identification practices do not reflect this understanding
of intelligence (Coleman, 2000; Perkins, 1995). There are many practical
ways of discovering what students know and what they are able to do. Student
portfolios, showing work over time; performance-based assessments; and
projects that involve collaboration with peers can all supplement standardized
testing. These methods also respect a multidimensional view of giftedness
and intelligence (Callahan, Tomlinson, Hunsaker, Bland, & Moon, 1995).
- Inappropriate Use of Statistical Formulas. When identification procedures
require the use of "cut scores" and/or formulas that combine scores from
a variety of measures into a single score (i.e., an IQ score combined with
an achievement score and a performance score from a checklist), we violate
sound statistical methods and the data are no longer valid (Frasier, 1997).
- Mismatch between Identification and Services. To be useful the data
collected during the identification process must be matched to the types
of services we can provide and must inform our educational decisions for
the student. For example, if we are serving students in an advanced math
program the identification should focus on mathematical abilities, performance,
and/or interest. Problems arise when we do not have a good match between
identification instruments and the services we provide. For example, when
we rely solely on visual-spatial measures to identify children for gifted
programs and then provide services that are highly verbal, we may do these
students more harm than good. The system works best when the identification
process assesses a variety of abilities, and when a variety of services
are available so that optimal matches can be made.
Appropriate Identification Practices
The best identification practices rely on multiple criteria to look
for students with gifts and talents. Multiple criteria involve:
- multiple types of information (e.g., indicators of student's cognitive
abilities, academic achievement, performance in a variety of settings,
interests, creativity, motivation; and learning characteristics/behaviors);
- multiple sources of information (e.g., test scores, school grades,
and comments by classroom teachers, specialty area teachers, counselors,
parents, peers, and the students themselves); and
- multiple time periods to ensure that students are not missed by "one
shot" identification procedures that often take place at the end of second
or third grade.
We must also ensure that standardized measures used normative samples
appropriate to the students being tested, taking into account factors such
as ethnicity, language, or the presence of a disability.
The use of multiple criteria does not mean the creation of multiple
hurdles to jump in order to be identified as gifted. We need to look for
students with outstanding potential in a variety of ways and at a variety
of time periods to ensure that no child who needs services provided through
gifted education is missed. Data collected through the use of multiple
criteria give us indicators of a student's need for services. These indicators
often vary in strength and may differ according to specific domains being
measured. For example, a student may be gifted in math but not gifted in
reading and spelling and because of this, it is inappropriate to sum or
combine the information. When used appropriately, no single criterion should
prevent a student's identification as gifted; however, any single criterion,
if strong enough, can indicate a need for services.
The Association for the Gifted (TAG) refers to the identification process
as searching for "hints and clues" of giftedness in all of our students
(CEC, 2001). This means that we must learn to recognize the indicators
of potential that our students show us and that we must nurture this potential
when we see it. To find students who have historically been overlooked
and underserved by gifted education we must be proactive in searching for
abilities that can be masked or hidden (National Research Council, 2002).
We may need to include planned experiences that are specifically designed
to give students an opportunity to show their abilities in safe environments;
we may also need to establish programs that will give children of promise
developmental opportunities that will prepare them to profit from academically
demanding programs. We may also need to provide specific supports and professional
development to teachers to help them recognize and nurture students with
outstanding potential who have been historically missed in our identification
processes (National Research Council, 2002).
Steps in the Identification Process
The identification process must be dynamic with both formal identification
checkpoints and ongoing opportunities for students to be identified as
their needs are recognized. The three phases in this process are:
1. General Screening or Student Search: The purpose of this phase is
to establish a pool of students who might qualify for services, ensuring
that no student falls through the cracks. This process involves formal
designated times at which the total school population or all students in
a designated grade level are reviewed, including students whose primary
language is not English and students with disabilities. Screening methods
can rely on student data that are readily available for all students (e.g.,
standardized scores taken for state or district assessments) and/or may
involve specific cognitive and academic assessments given as part of the
screening process. Comprehensive screening also includes invitations to
teachers, parents, and students to suggest names of individuals who might
need services. The screening procedures must not be more stringent than
the identification procedures. In other words, the screening pool should
be larger than the actual identification pool. Screening should also be
ongoing to allow for identification throughout the school year. All students
recognized in this phase move to the next phase in the identification process.
2. Review of Students for Eligibility. The purpose of this phase is
to review the students, determining which students would benefit from formal
identification and services. At this phase all the data are reviewed to
look for indicators that show a need for services. A given student may
be designated as clearly needing or not needing gifted services, as potentially
eligible at a later review, or as tentatively placed to see whether the
available services are a good match. It may also be determined that a student
is gifted in an area not served by the school. In the decision-making process
it is essential to remember that no single piece of evidence should disqualify
a student, but any single piece of evidence that is strong enough can reveal
a need for services.
3. Services Options Match. A school or school system needs first to
survey the possibilities it can offer students, both in regular classrooms
and special classrooms, so that it can set the stage for planning optimal
matches of students and options. Included for consideration should, for
example, be differentiated experiences in the regular classroom, various
methods of acceleration, cluster grouping, pull-out and self-contained
special classes, independent study, and so on. Based on a comprehensive
review of the student's strengths and needs, the best match for services
can then be made. This process is straightforward when the needs of the
student and the options for meeting these needs are clear-cut. It can,
however, require more thought and planning for those gifted students whose
needs are either different and/or are more complex. Students whose first
language is not English, students who also have a disability, and students
whose past experiences may not have prepared them for advanced academic
challenges may need special consideration in the configuration of their
services (Castellano, 2003; Coleman, 2001). Highly gifted students will
need different options than mildly or moderately gifted students. In all
cases the appropriateness of the service match should be monitored and
reviewed periodically to make sure it is still a good fit for the student.
The identification process itself should be periodically reviewed to
make sure that it is valid for the population being served and the types
of services being provided. To facilitate this review, data on student
referrals, eligibility decisions, and placement decisions should be collected.
To help the district examine identification trends for historically under-represented
students the data must be disaggregated by grade, gender, ethnicity, language
background, and economic status. These data should reflect patterns across
the districts by schools and teachers. The identification process is a
first but critical step in the process of ensuring that students who need
gifted education are recognized and matched with appropriate services so
that they can thrive in school.
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