Despite the growing numbers of English-language learners in U.S. schools, their representation in gifted and talented programs continues to lag behind not only their native English-speaking peers, but also other underserved populations, including black and Hispanic students and children from low-income families.
The root of the problem is the procedures and policies that most schools use to identify gifted students because they frequently overlook academically talented English-learners, a report from the National Center for Research on Gifted Education at the University of Connecticut found.
“You have these brilliant minds that are discredited because they were taught another language at birth. It’s not fair,” said Del Siegle, the center’s director and principal investigator.
In search of solutions, researchers from the center visited 16 elementary and middle schools across three states to conduct interviews with educators and parents at schools that had “exemplary” track records in spotting gifted English-learners. The team found that schools with a “critical mass” of English-learners were more attuned to the needs of their talented students. The schools they studied also had ELL advocates, or talent scouts as Siegle called them, who were on the lookout for students in need of enriched instruction.
The researchers examined the screening, nomination, identification, and placement processes in the schools and tried to pinpoint how professional development and communication strategies helped address the underrepresentation of English-learners in gifted and talented programs.
Their findings led to four recommendations:
- Screen all students for admission to gifted education.
- Use a variety of assessments to determine student eligibility, including tests that measure students’ ability and achievements in their native languages.
- Ensure that more educators and parents are aware of the identification process.
- Use professional development to help educators identify giftedness in multiple ways.
The researchers also created a 15-point tip sheet for identifying gifted English-learners with suggestions that include diversifying the teaching corps to reflect the student population and maintaining a list of multilingual staff who can administer gifted and talented assessments in student’s native languages.
The National Center for Research on Gifted Education conducted the study, commissioned during the Obama administration, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English-language acquisition.
The research paper’s focus on native-language assessments may be especially striking to English-learner advocates in Florida and other states that decline to offer the tests, even though federal education law directs states to “make every effort” to develop statewide exams in students’ first languages if they constitute a significant portion of the student population.
In Florida, a host of organizations—including the state chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the state conference of the NAACP, Sunshine State TESOL and its Miami-Dade chapter—are calling on state legislators to order a revision of the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan to ensure students have access to native-language assessments and that the state uses an accountability system that adequately monitors the academic progress of English-learners.
Education Week has also written about the struggles schools encounter in identify English-learners in need of enriched education.
An analysis by the Education Week Research Center found that while nearly 1 in 10 U.S. students is learning English as a second language, they only make up about 101,000 of the more than 3.4 million students in gifted programs across the nation.
Related Stories on the Education of English-Language Learners
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.