School & District Management

4 Ways Schools Help or Hinder Gifted Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 15, 2019 8 min read


The justification for gifted education is simple: Academically advanced children should be given work at their speed and level, both to nurture their talents and prevent them from becoming bored and disruptive in class.

Everything else—from how to define and identify gifted students, particularly those from traditionally underrrepresented groups, to how to serve them and nurture their long-term success—gets complicated.

“Where special ed. has a federal mandate—you must meet these students’ needs—we don’t have that,” said Jill Adelson, a research scientist at Duke University’s Talent Identification Program and the editor of the journal Gifted Child Quarterly. “We don’t even have a common definition across states of what gifted education is.”

Across several symposia at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting here, researchers added new wrinkles to the debate over how to academically support gifted students.

Slow Growth

For example: Prior studies have found most students experience a “summer slump,” growing faster during school years and flattening out over summers. But a study previewed at the meeting found top-performing students show less flattening from school to summer in the elementary grades—and much slower growth during the school year than average-performing students.

Karen Rambo-Hernandez of West Virginia University and Matthew Makel of Duke looked at math and reading performance in 10 states that use the NWEA MAP computer-adaptive test in reading and mathematics. The researchers compared students who tested at the mean in 3rd grade to those who tested about three grade levels ahead of that, and then followed both groups’ growth through 5th grade.

“The farther you started from your school’s mean, the slower your growth,” Rambo-Hernandez said. “In reading, the students who started at two standard deviations above the mean had much slower growth during the school year, and then they just kept trucking along with that same flow over the summer. So there was a real question as to whether or not those students were benefiting at all from their time in school.”

Top-performing students in math were more likely to show higher growth during the school year than in the summer, but in both subjects top students grew significantly slower during the school year and faster during the summer than the average student. Those who started out ahead didn’t outpace the average students’ growth during the school year until 4th grade in math and 5th grade in reading. “In theory, if you slow the kids down long enough, eventually the curriculum will catch up with them. It’s kind of sad,” Rambo-Hernandez said.

The growth study looked at top performers, whether or not they had been in gifted programs. And as other studies at the meeting suggest, both identification and services can be spotty for academically gifted students.

Better Identification?

Academically gifted students aren’t just further ahead than their classmates; research suggests they learn new concepts faster and differently. Yet districts rely on academic performance to identify gifted students, which can lead them to overlook students with disabilities and those from disadvantaged groups with less opportunity to learn.

Scott Peters, an associate education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and colleagues including Rambo-Hernandez, looked at the slowly growing trend to use district- or school-building-level comparison groups rather than national norms to identify academically advanced students while taking into account their local access to resources and challenging coursework. The reasoning goes that comparing students nationwide favors students from wealthier families and school districts that likely had more educational supports before and in the early years of school.

Using local comparison groups “is a way to maintain diversity without having to rely on something that’s really race or ethnicity-specific for legal reasons, and it works fairly well,” Peters said.

They analyzed test data for more than 3.3 million 3rd graders in 10,000 schools across 10 states: California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, South Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin from 2007 to 2016. They compared the percentage of students from different racial and socioeconomic groups who would have been identified as gifted in each school had their district identified students at the top 5 percent or 15 percent of national-, district-, or school-level test performance.

Using more local-level test data did help compensate for school-level differences in students’ opportunity to learn, they found. Using the top 5 percent of students in reading at each school boosted the number of Latino students identified in reading and math by more than 150 percent. Black students were identified at more than triple the rate in reading and four times the rate in math, Peters said. Meanwhile, gifted identification rates for white and Asian students declined, though still stayed disproportionately high compared to their share of the student body.

But there’s a catch: Using school-based comparison groups only works in districts with “extreme racial segregation” in schools, Peters said. “The schools that are perfectly integrated try to use within-building norms and have no effect whatsoever,” he said.

Within-school gaps in preschool preparation and course tracking often mean that gifted programs within the same school often end up concentrating higher-income, white, and Asian-American students also.

Advanced Curriculum Lacking

Even after students are identified for gifted education, their enrichment often doesn’t align to their needs.

University of Connecticut researchers looked at three states, all of which are considered ahead of the curve for requiring that academically gifted students be both identified and served, and for tracking the district programs and student achievement of gifted students over time. They collected state and district administrative data, surveyed 2,250 schools, and visited 40 individual programs.

More than 90 percent of the districts that they studied separately identified students for being advanced in reading and language arts, and more than 85 percent identified advanced students in math, according to Rashea Hamilton, a postdoctoral researcher at UConn’s National Center for Research on Gifted Education. Yet little more than one in 10 districts used a reading curriculum designed for gifted students, and significantly fewer did so in math.

“That’s something that tends to get lost,” said D. Betsy McCoach, an education measurement and evaluation professor at the University of Connecticut and study co-author. “A kid who learns more quickly can get through the curriculum at a much faster pace.”

Researchers found in math, 62 percent to 69 percent of districts reported their curriculum focused on content above students’ grade level, and 54 percent to 69 percent of districts did so in reading. But only about half of districts said their gifted curricula moved at a faster pace in math, and significantly fewer did so in reading.

“It’s definitely easier to accelerate in math,” McCoach said. “You can be an awesome reader in 1st grade, but you’re not going to give a 1st grader [George Orwell’s novel] Animal Farm even if they could read it. There’s an asynchrony between what you have the maturity to handle, literature-wise, and what you can read and comprehend.”

Regardless of whether students were identified as gifted in reading or math, their enrichment tended to focus on “process skills” such as critical thinking, problem-solving, or creativity. In most districts, the choice of what to teach fell mostly or completely to individual teachers and varied widely from school to school.

Those findings may help explain a 2012 national study by Adelson and McCoach that found attending gifted education in kindergarten through grade 5 had no benefit for students in overall math or reading achievement.

Taking the Long View

One study did provide reason for optimism, though. Vanderbilt University’s Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth has been tracking 700 highly gifted students—the top 1 percent or higher in math achievement—for 45 years and counting.

In its latest report, researchers found that patterns of these students’ academic abilities and their social, aesthetic, and other interests at age 13 were better predictors than ability alone of what fields they entered and whether they achieved “eminence,” such as becoming CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a tenured law or research professor, or a military leader, by age 50.

“Individual ability is important [for eminence in a field], but the ability pattern matters,” said David Lubinski, a co-director of the study. “On the values inventory, if you scored high on theoretical interests and high on math ability, and relatively low on social and religious values, you’re more likely to become a physicist or engineer. If you scored high on aesthetic and verbal ability, you’re more likely to become a humanist. People who are CEOs of big organizations, scored high on reasoning and economic values, and less on theoreticals.”

The takeaway for educators, he said, is the importance of tailoring education to students’ interests as well as their abilities, and not forcing them to focus on, say, entering a science field because they are skilled in science or math.

“These precocious kids are brought to the attention of teachers because they are so conspicuously talented, like a 7-foot-8-inch high school freshman will stick out to the basketball coach,” Lubinski said. “But there are a lot of tall kids who don’t care to play basketball, thank you very much, and there are math-precocious kids who aren’t interested in being a physicist, but in fighting terrorism or managing other organizations.

“People sometimes think that’s a waste,” he said, “but when we look where they are going, these kids are not not developing their talents; they are developing their talents in other areas. It’s important to let kids keep their options open.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as Studies Show How Schools Hinder or Help Gifted Students


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