Special Education

‘Twice Exceptional’ Students Miss Out on Gifted Classes

‘Twice exceptional’ students often get overlooked
By Alex Harwin — November 25, 2019 7 min read
Fifth grader Zachary is among the growing number of students identified as “twice exceptional” in Sacramento, Calif.
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Sacramento, Calif.

Audrey Judd is a 5th grader with dyslexia. She has also been identified as gifted and talented. Some call that combination “twice exceptional.” But Audrey, who attends Sutterville Elementary School in Sacramento, did not feel particularly exceptional in her gifted and talented class last year. She felt like just another kid in the class.

“There were two people that said they were autistic,” she said of her classmates. “There was someone who said they were missing a kidney. There was someone who shared that they had diabetes.”

Datawise, though, Audrey is exceptional and so is her school district, Sacramento Unified. Students with disabilities account for 14 percent of the nation’s school population, but in gifted and talented classes, they are a very small slice. Nationwide, less than 3 percent of students enrolled in gifted and talented education have been identified with disabilities.

In Sacramento, though, the proportion is higher: 6 percent of gifted and talented students in grades 2-12 have disabilities in a nearly 47,000-student district. Their numbers have grown in tandem with an overall rise over the past five years in newly identified gifted special education students. The jump was spurred in part by the settling of an issue with the federal office for civil rights over the disproportionate representation of minority populations in gifted education classes.

The 2014 complaint prompted educators and administrators to think of new ways to look at the student data and improve gifted and talented access. The district added an additional universal screening for gifted students and adopted more-inclusive practices for analyzing testing outcomes.

Overlooked Population

At least one survey shows that educators agree that gifted education specialists are best suited to provide support to twice-exceptional students like Audrey, who are often acutely aware of their learning differences. Nationwide, though, twice-exceptional students are among those who are often overlooked when it comes to getting tested for gifted and talented programs.

Often the “giftedness masks their learning disability, or their learning disability masks their giftedness, or they kind of cancel each other out and no one knows either,” said Hope Wilson, who studies attentional concerns of young gifted children at the University of North Florida.

A collective fear of some experts on twice exceptionality is that these talented students wind up bored in classrooms geared to their disability rather than their academic gifts.

“Typically, school districts approach identifying for gifted ed as starting with a teacher referral ... but if we’re realizing that we’re biased humans, teacher referral can be biased, too,” said Renae Mayes, an associate professor of educational psychology and school counseling who studies twice-exceptionality in urban environments at Ball State University. The result, in many such programs, is that twice-exceptional students—as well as students in poverty and black and Latino students—are frequently underrepresented in gifted and talented programs.

That’s why screening was a key part of Sacramento’s plan to improve its selection process.

Until the 2014-15 year, the district only universally screened children once, in the 1st grade. Kari Hanson-Smith, Sacramento’s gifted and talented coordinator, realized that the more that screenings were available, the more opportunities there were to identify students, so she added a screening in the 3rd grade.

In addition, students scoring high on one of the subcategories on the 3rd grade test could automatically be enrolled in gifted and talented programs. Students didn’t have to score high on the overall composite score in order to participate in gifted programming and could qualify instead by scoring high on just the quantitative or verbal component.

Alternately, students who scored in the preferred range for just one subcategory could continue through the screening process, and their academic interim assessment scores could help identify them for gifted services. Hanson-Smith and her team also lowered the qualifying cutoff ranking to the 77th percentile for each subcategory.

Hanson-Smith also focused on making sure students had access to the screening sessions, avoiding weekends when transportation or timing could pose hurdles for some parents and making sure that students who receive special supports and testing accommodations, such as large text for a student with a vision impairment or more time for one whose IEP calls for it, were given the option to use them.

These changes had some surprising side effects. It turns out that by trying to improve and increase the percentage of students of color in gifted and talented classes, the district indirectly increased the percentage of twice-exceptional learners who qualified.

But the changes created new challenges as well. Some teachers struggled with the new—and very different—profile of gifted students.

Julia Mayer, a 4th grade gifted teacher who has a credential in multicultural, multilingual education, understands that the district changed the testing standards so that a wider range of students could get into the program. Still, she said, the first year that it happened, she felt “surprise” at the range of students in the class. What she likes about twice-exceptional students like Audrey, though, is “seeing what they can do,” saying that it is like “opening a surprise box.”

Another gifted education teacher, Kevin Hubble, also saw the gifted population changing. “Over the years I think that the kids have become less, what I would say less [traditional] GATE [Gifted and Talented Education],” she said. She noted that her middle daughter didn’t get into GATE initially but now would likely qualify.

Sharon Leonard, a 2nd grade gifted teacher, said that in the past parents had more influence on getting their children into the gifted and talented program than she thought they should have. Still, she did not think the changes were necessarily beneficial to students.

“I feel like the kids who are at the really top, the 98 and 99 [percentile], they need a different experience,” she said, “and so we’re pulling in kids really with low scores and, and it’s harder for them.”

“I don’t want children to feel like they are the S-word as we say, which is stupid,” she said, because they are in a class with more traditional high scorers.

Testing Backlash

Teachers said more professional training is needed to work with these newer populations. Currently the district does not provide training specific to gifted education.

And testing in general has been a contentious issue for district teachers. In 2016 the teachers’ union signed an agreement memorandum with the district that lowered the number of overall tests that the district gives to students. Ultimately, this cut the number of academic interim assessments that were available to the GATE department to identify additional students to participate in gifted and talented services.

Zachary is a ‘twice exceptional’ 5th grader in Sacramento, Calif., where district leaders have endeavored to identify more students like him.

Hanson-Smith noted that during the 2015-16 year, two math and two language arts assessments were given out, and by 2016-17, those numbers were reduced to one math and one language arts assessment during the last weeks of the school year.

This lowered the percentage of newly identified 1st and 3rd grade gifted and talented students during the 2016-17 school year. For twice-exceptional students, the proportions dropped from about 13 percent for 1st graders in 2015-16 to 10 percent in 2016-17 and, for 3rd graders, from about 4 percent to just over 1 percent.

In a recent letter to the teachers’ union, district Superintendent Jorge Aguilar said federal civil rights officials had noted that the lack of multiple assessments for GATE identification had a negative impact on underrepresented student populations. For that reason, Aguilar said, he decided that the district would once again implement consistent interim assessments.

Hanson-Smith, the gifted coordinator who implemented the changes, almost lost her job last spring in a budget-cutting proposal that ultimately failed. Because California does not require schools to identify or serve gifted and talented students, she said, she will always be worried about “losing the ground that we have made.”

But “what really keeps me up at night,” she said, “is the inequity that a twice-exceptional student living in my district has the chance of being found and supported, but there is another kid who is such a similar learner living [in another district] on the other side of the river who will not be found or even if found, will not be supported. And that breaks my heart because that doesn’t have to happen.”

Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at www.jkcf.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as Schools Struggle to Widen Access to Gifted Classes

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