Christopher Taibbi M.A.T.

Gifted-Ed Guru

Identifying the Gifted: Trouble-Shooting 101

Identifying the gifted should be easy, right? Not so fast....

Posted Dec 17, 2011

The Meeting

It is after school and, like many other teachers who might at this very moment be attending a faculty meeting, I find myself in a meeting too. Currently, I imagine, other teachers across the county are probably listening to their principal discuss the latest benchmark testing data or whatever information needs to be passed down from the school board or the superintendent.

My meeting, however, has been called because of a number, and that number is 48.
It strikes me that, on the surface of it, a number is a pretty innocuous thing. But to the lady who sits at the head of the conference table before the twelve of us, it represents quite a lot. It is the sole thing that is keeping her child from being able to participate in certain after school activities; that number is the thing that, in some cases, limits her child's ability to see certain teachers; to this mother, that number represents judgments that our school system has made about her daughter's intelligence, motivation, learning potential, creativity, and perhaps even, her future success.

And it's only off by two. If that 48 had been a 50, we wouldn't even be gathered in this conference room today.

She wraps up her presentation and, I must admit, it has been impressive. She has been eloquent, even-handed, diplomatic. She has also been forceful, descriptive, and prepared. In short, she's been the perfect advocate as she has argued for her daughter's inclusion in the gifted program our county school division offers. As the meeting wraps up, a few of us ask some follow-up questions, and then we thank her for her time and promise a response by the week's end. She leaves the room with a wave of her hand and a smile.

And now it's our turn, the Appeals Committee, to review the all records and data collected six weeks ago. This information, when plugged into a mathematical matrix that ranks and weighs certain elements of that data, resulted in a score of 48. Today we'll consider that number along with the new information and insight that has been offered by the mother. If this committee deems that initial score to be a less than accurate picture of the whole student, we'll either ask for more data (e.g. one more test, perhaps) or we'll immediately identify her as gifted and make available to her those services that our school division offers.

The door has shut softly and we begin our discussion.
Contrary to most people's perception, it is not easy to identify an individual as "gifted." Most definitions of giftedness around the country require more than an above average IQ score on a test. Giftedness, most experts would say, is a combination of many above-average personal traits, the intelligence quotient being just one of them. A quick glance at the website for the National Association for Gifted Children, for example, illustrates the diverse ways of defining this amorphous trait. (You can find that site here:

Look at any of these definitions closely however, and you'll find a large bulk of them have in common at least three elements. Based largely on the work done by educational psychologist Joseph Renzulli (out of the University of Connecticut), those traits used for identifying gifted individuals may be stated using different words or synonyms; they may be illustrated using different examples; but a very large portion of the paradigms used for selecting gifted students in the United States tend to take into account these three traits: above-average ability/intelligence, creativity, and task commitment/motivation.

And therein lies the rub of the matter.

Assessing Element #1: Above-average ability/intelligence. For most school divisions, this component is fairly easy to assess. A series of standardized test scores (for example, the K-BIT, COGAT, WRIT, RIAS, and NNAT-and a host of another similarly titled alphabet soup tests are published and nationally normed) help to determine the individual's overall ability. In some cases, a school division might use an achievement test to select a student as one in need of further challenge. Offer the test, score the results, and voila!-this piece of the puzzle is in place, right?

Not So Fast: A score on a normed test of ability or intelligence does yield a number and, yes, that number does effectively rank that student among those in the normed group ("Congrats! You performed better than 87% of those who took this test!") but that number does not tell the test taker what the division deems to be "above average intelligence." Some school divisions might place that moniker only on those who score in the 98th percentile as measured against the nation or, perhaps, only that district. I have also consulted with school systems who divide their larger district into smaller pieces and demand only that the student score in that range as judged against that one subset of the district. Still other divisions in the U.S. might find that the 98th percentile is too limiting-or, depending on their resources, not limiting enough. And for the child who is transferring from one district to another, it is entirely possible that what was deemed a worthy score or test of ability, achievement (or even a definition of general giftedness) in the previous system may not be deemed so in another.

Furthermore, these tests cost money. If a score is inconsistent from one test to another, most divisions are, at least in spirit, willing to offer an additional test to help clarify the discrepancy. However, today many cash-strapped districts find themselves struggling to find the means by which to offer that child this one final assessment. Similarly, they may face this dilemma if they wish to test a special ed or, perhaps, an ESL student (one whose primary language in the home is one other than English). As stated, there are a myriad number of tests available to assess "above-average-ness"- even for those who struggle with a learning disability or who do not speak English fluently. (The Naglieri is a popular non-verbal ability test, for example.) But these are not free and they must inevitably be weighed against the costs of everything from new textbooks to classroom furniture, salaries, building maintenance, transportation costs, etc.

Finally, it is of course entirely possible that the tests offered simply may not reflect the test taker's ability/intelligence. Everyone has had a bad day. We've woken up late, skipped breakfast to rush to our job (fighting traffic the whole way) and found, upon arriving, that we had left something critical to our day at home. Imagine this same sort of scenario for the elementary or middle school student who slept poorly the night before, rushed out the door, had peer troubles on the bus ride to school, and then was asked to sit and take a "very important" test. Forgivably, this student might not offer her best effort. Similarly, it is conceivable that the test proctor himself or the environment in which that test was offered could inadvertently affect the result. These sorts of irregularities, while hopefully not common, are not impossible.

Assessing Element #2: Creativity. Evaluating creativity might sound a bit like trying to nail Jello to a wall: a messy task at best and one with no clear strategy for its accomplishment. In fact, however, there are some generally agreed upon ways to judge one person's creativity against another's. In essence (and perhaps better, more thoroughly explored in a future blog) an examiner can analyze another's ability to demonstrate four creative thinking skills: fluency, flexibility, elaboration, and originality.

The first thinking skill, fluency, merely asks the individual to name or list as many different items he/she can think of that fit into a given category. ("Name many things that are round.") The second skill, flexibility, is commonly referred to as "thinking outside the box." A flexible thinking exercise typically asks a person to sort a given set of material into as many different categories as possible. ("How many different ways can you group these words or sort these shapes?") A student asked to demonstrate elaborative thinking might be asked to take a plain, fairly ordinary toy and suggest ways to improve it. ("You could add some lights to the eyes so they glow at night.") To assess originality, a student might be asked to look at a simple abstract line drawing and describe what he thinks it is. More "common" answers ("I see a cat with whiskers.") would be deemed "less original" than the student who looks at it with a more unique perspective ("I see a fork pulling an olive out of a jar and its reflecting on the glass.").

For those school divisions that use creativity as an element in the identification process, there is generally enough research to "judge" these elements of the creative thinking processes. There are numerous commercially produced behavioral checklists that can help teachers and parents spot creative tendencies in their students-as well as performance-based tasks, questionnaires, and manipulative games. All of these, taken as whole or individually, can be offered to elicit these creative thinking skills.

Not So Fast: We have assumed one very important and debatable premise in the above discussion, namely: we must agree on the very definition of creativity. Casting aside the four thinking skills altogether for a moment, who is to say why or how one person's creativity in creating music compares to another's ability to write poetry? When it comes to a performance-based task or a questionnaire, what the evaluator holds as a "higher" demonstration of overall elaborative or original thinking may be (must be?) somewhat subjective.

Again, too, cultural differences and varied levels of access to enrichment opportunities could affect a creativity (and nearly any other tested) score. A child raised in one household might quite naturally see in a simple circle the viewfinder field of a microscope. Another might simply think of that circle as a wedding ring or a donut.

Assessing Element #3: Motivation/task commitment. First, we should address the rationale for even including this element in the definition of giftedness. Boiled down, to its essence, it goes something like this: having a gifted mind does little for that individual or society if that individual does not have the personal drive to manifest that gift in some way. Think of it, perhaps, as akin to the hackneyed expression about money: "You can't take it with you when you die." Money has no value until you spend it on something. Keeping it under your mattress forever makes it just, well, paper. Similarly giftedness, some argue, has no inherent value unless you do something with it-whether that be for yourself or others. And to do that, you must have some degree of task commitment.

The typical way to assess this element might be to offer teachers and parents a checklist of observed behavior. (A sample question: "On a scale of 1-5, to what degree does this student/child stick with a task even when it becomes challenging?") Classroom grades might be taken into account since, the logic goes, those who earn higher grades must have exhibited at least some degree of task commitment or motivation to earn those grades. Where grades are not deemed a sufficiently realistic picture, portfolios of work might be offered as evidence. In later grade levels, even letters from employers could be considered.

Not So Fast: No doubt, many reading this right now have already spotted the most common objection to this portion of the gifted definition. "My child can be very committed to what he works on. I call his name and he hardly even hears me. It's just that what he finds worth committing to is often not what his school wants him to commit to." This point is a legitimate one indeed. Many gifted students will only show their task commitment if the task is one they find intrinsically engaging. And if this student is also one who is not motivated by achieving good grades (and many gifted students are not), there may be little "evidence" available to place is this motivation category.

Putting It All Together

All of the trouble-spots and difficulties discussed above are the very reason we have gathered in this conference room after school today. Identifying gifted students is not a straight-forward, connect-the-dots type of task. That is the precise reason we have so many different ways to consider these three traits, qualities that will ultimately determine a person's "giftedness." That is the precise reason why we look at no less than ten different pieces of information to determine a child's inclusion in the program. Sometimes, it's obvious: the algorithm used to add these different components together yields a score of 63 and only 50 is needed. In other cases, it's a tougher call-a 48 out of 50.

On those occasions, we remind ourselves that the subjective elements of this process are at play, as they are in many fields of life. We invite that parent in to speak so that we may gain a more complete perspective; we discuss and revisit that individual's case, squaring the new information with what we already have on paper.

In the end it's a judgment call from the committee here. Should the committee decide not to identify this child today, the parent can always request that the entire rescreening process be initiated again next school year. Some do.

But today I have reason to think that this parent, the one who left us moments ago, will not need to do that.

About the Author

Christopher Taibbi specializes in gifted education. He has coauthored several books on teaching.

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