Education Opinion

Identifying Gifted Students

By Walt Gardner — August 06, 2010 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The latest chapter in the gifted student saga was on display at Hunter College High School in New York City when a graduating senior delivered a commencement address that called into question the basis for admission to the storied school (“Diversity Debate Convulses Elite High School,” Aug. 5). The school uses a single, teacher-written test that has not changed for decades. Although the test is defended by Hunter College, which oversees the high school, as “very valuable in terms of preserving the kind of specialness and uniqueness that the school has,” it has resulted in a decline in the percentage of black and Hispanic students enrolled.

Let’s put aside that outcome just for a second, and ask a more fundamental question: Can giftedness be fairly identified solely by one instrument? New York City thinks it can. Since 2008, Chancellor Joel Klein has made the score on a citywide standardized test the lone criterion for admission to gifted and talented kindergarten programs. Not surprisingly, the policy has triggered the accusation that it favors wealthier families. That’s because some parents prepare their toddlers for the test with $90 workbooks, $145-an-hour tutoring, and weekend boot camps. If this young age were not questionable enough, New York City intends to use a test for even younger children for admission to gifted and talented preschools.

This is where the drop in the percentage of black and Hispanic students in gifted and talented schools comes into play. These students come largely from impoverished backgrounds. As a result, their parents lack the means to provide them with the same leg up that wealthier parents can provide their children. That’s one reason why critics of the one-test-for-admission policy want to use multiple measures, including portfolios of student work and interviews, in upper grades to offset the edge that professional test preparation confers. The downside is that these factors are subjective and allow favoritism to come into play. Moreover, some teachers feel uncomfortable making these high-stakes judgments. But these objections pale against the benefits of multiple measures. Too many students who are gifted never are identified because they miss the cutoff score by a point or two. How justifiable is that?

The danger of relying exclusively on one written exam can also be partially remedied by training teachers to recognize giftedness. Teachers, after all, work with students on a daily basis for months on end. California, which has about 512,000 students enrolled in gifted and talented programs, was on the verge of undertaking this approach, but efforts stalled when the cost was revealed to be $1.1 million. This amount is a pittance, but it was considered indefensible because of the state’s financial crisis.

But what about using this strategy nationwide? Although there are about 3 million K-12 students identified as gifted, the likelihood is that there are many more. Don’t all gifted students deserve the same attention that students in special education programs now have? Since the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act was passed in 1988, the law has languished in the shadows. It would be a logical place for funding since it is already on the books.

What is being lost in the debate is that the U.S. is squandering one of its greatest assets at a time when other nations are nurturing theirs. We worry about wasting natural resources, but aren’t these students equally important? Don’t they qualify for special treatment? I don’t think we can afford to continue along the same path and still expect to compete in the global economy. A gifted mind is a terrible thing to waste.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.