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The Theory and Practice of Identifying Students for Gifted Education Services

By Tamara Fisher — July 31, 2012 4 min read
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Many times when I am giving a presentation on a gifted education topic, whether at a conference or to some other group, a person in the audience raises their hand to ask what they apparently think is a simple question with a simple answer. It usually goes something like this:

“Just a quick question before you move on... How are the gifted students in your district identified?” Or, often, the phrases “What do you use to identify” or “What would you recommend” or “What is the best way to...” are included in some fashion. I can’t help but pause in the moment and marvel at their innocence.

I give them the short version of the answer regarding our district - as much as time allows - always coupled with a statement that “identification” is a huge topic within the field. And not only could one take a graduate level course on Identification and still not have all the answers, but there’s also a lot of discussion, disagreement, and debate among the most expert of experts in the field on what are the best ways to identify students for gifted services. [Not to mention the discussion, disagreement, and debate about “what to do with them” once they’ve been identified!]

Some of you might be surprised to hear that even the most expert of experts disagree, debate, and endlessly discuss identification. “Why don’t they have it all figured out already?” you might be saying to yourself. (Those of us deeper into the field are politely chuckling at the query, shaking our heads a bit at our field’s continuing identification drama...)

Is it about talent development? Is it about traits and characteristics? Is it about meeting individual student learning needs? Is it about the quirks and social/emotional needs common to these students? Is it about creativity? Is it a collection of “gifted behaviors”? Is it all of the above, or something else? Ask ten Gifted Education Specialists and you will likely get ten different views, all supported by tests and measures, research, anecdotal examples, local/state law and/or policy, historical and/or modern precedence, and a definition by some organization or legislative body.

The question of “What do you use,” as posed to me above, generally reflects a “dipstick” [think oil, not insult] or “point in time” strategy to identification... using one measure administered on a given day of a given grade level. Historically, this is what identification entailed for decades, so I can’t blame them for thinking that’s just the way it’s still done.

[Well, in many places, it still is. However, there are also a multitude of variations, including many using what the field terms “multiple measures.” Which, by the way, is the recommended practice by the National Association of Gifted Children in their K-12 Programming Standards.]

I have been known to tongue-in-cheek say, “It’s not like diabetes. You can’t just prick their fingers and get instant diagnoses.” [No, I am not in favor of pricking their little fingers to find out who’s gifted. Yes, there are some who think “diagnosis” is a more apt descriptor than “identification” when it comes to the gifted.] Then one day not too long ago, a magazine intended for my neighbor, a family practice doctor (and, coincidentally, a college friend), ended up in my mailbox instead of his. Before returning it, I perused it during breakfast and discovered a series of articles about diabetes testing, diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring. Turns out, testing, diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of diabetes is actually rather complex and not nearly as cut and dry and simple as those TV commercials had led me to believe. From the outside, it’s easy for me to think, “Good grief, doctors, can’t you just set a number and on one side of it is diabetes and on the other is not?” Well, no. A lot of factors (that can vary from patient to patient) determine whether one gets the diagnosis and what their treatment path is. And - get this - the same person might be diagnosed by one doctor and not diagnosed by another, since different standards [they probably have a more medically-correct word than “standards”] can be and are used. Hmm... sounds a bit like something else I know a thing or two about... (wink, wink) We’re not alone.

Turns out I was sort of onto something all along... Identifying (diagnosing, if you prefer) giftedness really DOES have a lot in common with the process of diagnosing diabetes. Both are complex processes, dependent on various factors, best done by knowledgeable and educated (on the topic) individuals, subject to “tainting” by unexpected and external/internal elements, and the source of much debate among practitioners and experts in their fields. Go figure!

So, all of this is part of why I’m curious to get my hands on the just released new book titled, “Identification: The Theory and Practice of Identifying Students for Gifted and Talented Education Services.” It looks to be a comprehensive tackle of all of these issues (and more!), including widely varying perspectives, philosophies, processes, policies, and practices. August back-to-school to-do list: Place book orders. (We have an effective identification process using various effective tools and resources already in place in our district, but I’m a nerd when it comes to reading, thinking, and talking about this stuff! My curiosity knows it never hurts to learn something new and get additional ideas of what could/should be done.)

[At least I might have a book to recommend now when faced with that above question again...]

What issues and big questions do you ponder about identification?

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted 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.

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