What does it take to find the country’s most promising, academically talented students?
In wealthier enclaves, where gifted education programs often flourish, it can be simply a matter of testing to cream the best from a pool of youngsters who have had high-quality early enrichment and academics.
But with more than half of public school students now coming from low-income families and deepening concentrations of poverty in many communities, standard screening and pullout programs may not be enough to find and support the most vulnerable talented students.
In response, more educators and researchers who work with gifted students are calling for another look at who is considered gifted and how schools can locate and support those students.
“I think there’s a significant shift going on in the field,” said Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, the director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and the past-president of the National Association for Gifted Children. “The field is really wrestling with whether to jettison the notion of giftedness as this fixed, inborn trait of IQ, and adopting the sense that giftedness is something malleable, that experience matters a lot, and we need to develop it.”
The share of low-income 4th graders scoring as “advanced” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math has grown, but not enough to catch up with higher-income students.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
Thirty-six states require at least that districts identify students with high academic potential, according to the 2015 reportcommissioned by the Leesburg, Va.-based Jack Kent Cooke Foundation—though not all those states require districts to serve gifted students. Of those, 28 audit or otherwise monitor gifted programs, and only 13 require a growth model or other indicator capable of measuring the academic progress of gifted students.
Only two states require teachers to have any training in educating gifted students, and none requires educators to learn about how poverty may affect giftedness.
“In no way am I saying closing achievement gaps isn’t important; 3rd grade students should be able to read at a 3rd grade level,” said Jonathan A. Plucker, an education professor specializing in gifted and special education issues at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. “My concern is so many of these kids in low-income settings in 3rd grade ought to be reading at a 6th grade level. So much of our policy, interventions, education system treat proficiency as the end zone, when it ought to be a yard marker.”
Going Beyond Tests
This month, at the Paterson Academy for the Gifted and Talented here in New Jersey, 6th grader Elainie Alfonso graphs pre-algebra problems in math, her favorite class, and said she finally has friends “whose brains work like mine.”
But without good recommendations from her old school and the then-newly-launched academy looking to recruit, Elainie’s teachers admit she likely would have been overlooked.
“Most traditional measures of giftedness are designed to work with kids who are already doing well, performing well on achievement tests,” said Ms. Olszewski-Kubilius.
But it’s clear that—based in part on health and home-enrichment differences for children in poverty—open in the toddler stage and tend to widen throughout the early grades. As a result, she said, by using nationally normed standardized intelligence tests, “you aren’t going to find children who have potential but aren’t necessarily achieving well.”
Poverty can challenge identification of a gifted youngster regardless of whether he or she attends a wealthy or impoverished school.
In a school filled with other students living in poverty, teachers and administrators may not have time or financial resources for advanced enrichment when other students need help to meet basic standards. Meanwhile, a poor, bright student in a wealthier school with the resources to support advanced courses and enrichment for gifted students may still find him- or herself outcompeted for a program slot by students who had more home support.
“The mistake we’ve made in gifted education is, we’ve turned identification into a pure testing issue,” Mr. Plucker said, but stereotypes persist that the focus for children in poverty should be just on getting them to minimal standards, not looking for outstanding performers. “It’s more of a cultural, unintended bias issue, but in education, we haven’t admitted that that’s the real problem—probably because it makes people uncomfortable to think that everyone’s a little bit racist, everyone’s a little bit classist.”
For example, Ms. Olszewski-Kubilius said, teachers should consider recommending a child who speaks nonstandard English but uses creative puns and other wordplay. Likewise, a student who seems disengaged but who can ask probing questions or shows deep understanding of a subject that interests him or her might be considered for a program even if the child’s grades are generally mediocre.
If they must use standardized tests, administrators trying to find potentially advanced students in poverty often need to substantially broaden their range, said Susan G. Assouline, the director of the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
Ms. Assouline argued that if testing can overlook impoverished gifted students, it can be better to put the cart before the horse: Provide initial enrichment, such as during the summer or after school, and observe how quickly students learn and respond.
“Start not with, ‘Who qualifies for the program?’ but with, ‘What is your end goal?’ ” she said.
The Belin-Blank center has started a program to build a middle school pipeline for high school Advanced Placement courses in 11 rural, high-poverty districts in Iowa. The program uses a more relaxed entry requirement—scoring in the top 15 percent on a locally normed test—before students take two hours each of math and science after school weekly, for a total of 96 hours. In its intense focus, the program provides both a screening and a support structure to prepare students to take AP courses in the upper grades.
It’s not that there’s no evidence of what works to teach gifted students generally. It’s that, across decades of research, low-income gifted students barely have a footprint in the studies, casting doubt on how certain educators can be that those strategies will apply to them.
For example, in a new longitudinal study in the 2015 book,, researcher Katie Larsen McClarty of the Center for College & Career Success in Austin, Texas, part of the education publisher Pearson’s research network, found that, on average, students who skipped a grade and participated in challenging academic coursework, such as AP, “consistently and significantly outperformed their nonaccelerated peers, both in high school and in college.”
However, only 11 percent of the advanced students in the study sample were from the lowest 25 percent of family income, and 70 percent were from the top half of income. Moreover, in a separate research analysis also conducted this year and published in the same book, Mr. Plucker found no studies on various methods of acceleration that included a large enough sample of low-income students to be sure the methods worked for them and did not cause negative side effects.
“The fact we could find next to nothing on low-income students for any of the different acceleration methods was just shocking,” Mr. Plucker said.
Take, for example, some of the behaviors associated with gifted students in a class that is not academically challenging: They may zone out or be focused on their own interests instead of a lesson. They may be more likely to disagree with the teacher and have difficulty socializing with other children.
In a high-poverty, likely crowded school with many other students struggling to meet standards, that behavior might come across as anti-social rather than bored.
“They are flipped sides of the same misconception: that there’s no talent in these kids,” Mr. Plucker said.
Chyenne Roberts, a 6th grader at the Paterson academy, said she often tried not to act smart in her old school, because she was bullied and called names for being different. “I would feel stupid, even though the test didn’t show that; I was the outsider, because it was just harder to be down in [my classmates’] level,” she recalled. “You start to think, ‘Is this how my family sees me? Is that how my parents see me?’ ”
It took a combination of challenging coursework, training in organizational and study skills, and burgeoning friendships with other accelerated students for Chyenne to become an outgoing, focused student at the gifted magnet school. “I saw I had to push myself, and ... my confidence level just rises a lot here.”
Although much of the focus under the federal No Child Left Behind law has been on moving low-achieving students to grade-level proficiency, there has been a significant—but small and mostly overlooked—rise in low-income students achieving at advanced levels.
From 2003 to 2013, the share of students eligible for free lunch who scored at the “advanced” level in mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose from 1 percent to 2 percent in both 4th and 8th grades. Among students eligible for reduced-price lunch, the proportion performing at the advanced level in math rose from 2 percent to 5 percent among 4th graders and from 3 percent to 5 percent for 8th grade. Moreover, 5 percent of 4th graders receiving reduced-price lunch scored at the advanced level on the 2013 NAEP in reading, up a small but statistically significant 1 percent from 2003.
As a district superintendent, José M. Torres said he was reluctant to send his top students to gifted programs like the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, a state residential school for 650 high-achieving 10th-12th graders, because “while realistically, two or three students weren’t going to change my accountability scores, but perceptually, I didn’t want to see my best go.”
Now, as president of that same state math and science academy, he is working to bring in more students from disadvantaged groups, including rural and minority students, but he still struggles to attract an economically diverse population. Only 13 percent of his students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, compared with about 40 percent statewide.
If Mr. Torres is successful, it’s also easy to fall into a Catch-22, Mr. Plucker said. “Principals go, they get a little success [in a gifted program targeting poor students], and parents find out about it—and you know which parents are the ones who were looking—and you come back in a few years and say, ‘Well, shoot, we’re so far off where we wanted to be.’ ”
Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 2015 edition of Education Week as Gifted Programs Miss Disadvantaged Students