States Seen Renewing Focus on Education Of Gifted

By Christina A. Samuels — April 06, 2007 3 min read
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Florida and Wisconsin are among the states considering changes to the system they use to identify gifted children, part of what experts in the field say is a national trend of reaching out to children traditionally underrepresented in academically advanced classrooms.

Advocates for the gifted hope that the attention in those states—as well as Indiana’s recent move to mandate education for students of “high ability”—indicates a renewed concentration on gifted education, amid the focus on underachieving children prompted by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Federal policy requires all students to score at proficient levels on state tests by 2014.

“The optimist in me has said, maybe the pendulum has swung as far as it’s going to go,” said Jane Clarenbach, the director of public education for the National Association of Gifted Children, or NAGC, in Washington. “There are a number of states that are grappling with this.” The group estimates that about 3 million U.S. children are gifted.

In Indiana, the state legislature passed a bill March 15 that would require districts to provide such services, though it leaves the specific definition of “high ability” up to the districts. The bill, awaiting the governor’s signature, includes specific language to ensure that “multifaceted assessments” are used to include groups typically underrepresented in programs for the gifted, such as minorities, the poor, and students with disabilities.

‘A Patchwork Quilt’

“The main issue has to do with the rather rigid cutoff criteria that has been in use before,” said Joseph S. Renzulli, the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. “My philosophy is much more flexible than, ‘You’re gifted or not gifted.’ ”

But the complex nature of identifying gifted students remains a challenge for many states and districts.

First, there are competing definitions of what makes a student gifted. And, unlike in special education, there is no federal policy that oversees how states should handle gifted education. Some states mandate education for the gifted and provide full funding for it. Others mandate it, with partial funding coming from the state and the remainder for local districts. And in still other states, there is no state funding for gifted education, and no mandate from the state that it must be provided, though individual districts may choose to do so.

“It’s a patchwork quilt,” Ms. Clarenbach said.

A West Virginia proposal would allow students to be considered gifted if they score in the 97th percentile on a “comprehensive test of intellectual ability.” Currently, state regulations require a score in the 98th percentile. West Virginia has a student enrollment of about 280,000 students.

The National Association of Gifted Children estimates that about 6 percent of children are academically gifted, but only 2 percent are identified as such in West Virginia.

Wisconsin’s proposal has not yet been introduced, though the state hopes to make changes by the end of the calendar year.

Chrystyna V. Mursky, the educational consultant who oversees gifted and talented education for Wisconsin, said the state is hoping to adopt the “exemplary” identification practices advocated by the NAGC. Teachers would gather a portfolio of information on each student, rather than relying on a single measure or test. The profile could be used to guide student instruction, Ms. Mursky said.

The state now uses multiple measures, but adopting the NAGC standards would allow the state to recommend practices that most closely follow the research in the gifted education field, she said.

Florida’s proposal, which was first introduced late last year and is under consideration by the state board of education, would eliminate the current policy’s definition of giftedness as “measured by an intelligence quotient of two standard deviations above the mean,” which is an iq of 130.

Instead, the state would use the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the standardized test given to students in grades 3 through 11, as another measure of giftedness.

But Lauri Kirsch, the supervisor of gifted education in the 191,000-student Hillsborough County district, which includes Tampa, said the proposed change would result in fewer students in underidentified groups being identified as gifted, rather than more.

The proposal, unlike the current regulations, makes no specific mention of trying to reach underrepresented groups.

“If the intent is to have the program be more representative of the general population, this would not do that,” said Ms. Kirsch, whose district has 13,000 students identified as gifted. “Anytime we have change, we have to look at the larger picture. There is no silver bullet on identification.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2007 edition of Education Week as States Seen Renewing Focus on Education of Gifted

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