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Gifted Pupils: Many Are Unidentified, Underserved

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Washington--When she reached 5th grade, Carol, a student from East Hartford, Conn., was placed in a program for "gifted and talented" students. Admission to the program was based largely on I.Q. scores; students with I.Q.'s below 130 were not admitted. Carol, with an I.Q. of 133, was accepted.

But the following year, after Carol's family moved across the river to West Hartford, her parents learned that in the new district, only students with I.Q.'s of 135 or higher were classified as "gifted." Hence, Carol would not be able to take part in the program.

Carol's experience, according to Joseph S. Renzulli, is one of many such cases. It points, he said, to one of the most serious problems in education for the gifted and talented: defining what "gifted" means and identifying students who meet that definition.

Mr. Renzulli, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut and a pioneer in the field of education for gifted students, was one of several experts on the subject who spoke at a special symposium on "New Directions for Gifted Education" at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (apa), held here last week.

Among the major points of the discussion:

Many bright children are wasting up to half the time they spend in regular classes. And the available data suggest that fewer than half of all gifted students have been identi-fied and placed in special programs attuned to their needs.

Educators too often define a "gifted" child as one who attains exceptionally high scores on tests of academic aptitude and achievement. But, the panelists noted, many children have unusual talents and intangible qualities that are not readily measured on standardized tests.

The special programs that are developed rarely suit the widely varying needs and interests of very bright children.

'Measurement and Evaluation'

Many of the methods of measurement and evaluation are "characterized by unsophisticated and often inaccurate data collection," said Donald J. Treffinger, an educational psychologist at the State University of New York College at Buffalo. Many districts adopt a "matrix" approach, in which "incomparable data are thrown together" in an effort to create a numerical index of "giftedness." Such indices, he said, defeat the purpose of gathering a wide range of information about the student.

Furthermore, the tests that students take to qualify for a special program may not be an appropriate measure of "giftedness," according to Mr. Treffinger. "There is widespread misuse of tests for purposes for which they were not developed and for which they are not appropriate."

Some school officials rely too heavily on total test scores to establish cutoff points, Mr. Treffinger said. In doing so, he added, they are ignoring the margin of "standard error" that is built into virtually all standardized tests.

The use of standardized tests to identify gifted students is problematic in other ways, Mr. Renzulli said. There are two kinds of giftedness, he believes. The first, "schoolhouse giftedness," is found in those students who are "good test takers or lesson learners." The majority of public-school students classified as "gifted" probably fall into this category, Mr. Renzulli said.

But these talents alone offer no guarantee that a student will achieve success. "History does not remember people who merely learn their lessons well," he said.

The processes of identifying students and developing programs for them should be interrelated, Mr. Treffinger said. Psychological and educational assessments should provide useful information, but test scores alone are not the principal source of such information. "We need a broader profile of students," he said.

The programs themselves, although created with good intentions, are often inadequate, the speakers agreed. Many offer only a few supplemental activities in which all gifted students, regardless of their particular talent, participate.

These programs are premised on the notion that "all gifted students can be treated identically or benefit from a single program," Mr. Treffinger said.

"One of the great paradoxes is that we build programs on the rationale that students have unique talents, then expect the same program to suit them all."

Other speakers, however, questioned whether the public schools have the resources to create effective programs for gifted students.

A recent study by the educational theorist Benjamin S. Bloom found, according to John F. Feldhusen of Purdue University, that many parents with gifted children give up on the public schools and seek special instruction elsewhere. In some cases, school-board policies preclude rapid promotion, and bright students become extremely bored.

Moreover, Mr. Feldhusen said, the gifted are tremendously diverse. "No single program could come close to meeting all their needs. Any notion that we can come up with some single program is unrealistic."

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