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Evaluating Gifted Programs: Four Essential Questions

Even then, it might not matter how "good" the program is. Two words tell us why.

I am standing in front of a group of parents, nearly fifty in number, who are gathered at tonight’s meeting to find out more about the school division’s gifted program. By their demeanor, they are a mix of anxious, curious and, at the very least, eager to get to the agenda so they can get home, make dinner, help with the homework, and get their kids to bed. I glance at the clock and find it is indeed time to start. “Good evening, everyone. Thanks for coming out tonight.” We’re underway.

Most school districts offer meetings like this at some point in the school year—meetings that help parents assess the various educational options in which their children might be able to participate. Some are offered over the summer, in anticipation of the upcoming year; others are offered closer to the middle of the school year, a time when most class schedules are being hashed out between students and guidance counselors. Generally, I am surprised at how few parents attend these meetings but tonight’s number is a pleasant surprise. Using a presentation that I know like the back of hand, I proceed through a few PowerPoint slides in quick succession: what the program looks like in elementary through high school; what the objectives of that program are; what the role of the resource teachers is precisely. Then it’s time for the Q and A.

A lady in the back raises her hand: "My family is new to the area. I was wondering if you could tell me if this school district's talented and gifted program is truly for gifted learners or if it is really for high achievers… and they just throw ‘gifted’ in there. My son's IQ is at 137 but he blew the Naglieri test needed to qualify him for TAG last year in our old district, so I’m afraid he’ll just be languishing in a regular classroom with no acceleration for an entire school year. Are there any particular questions or things I should look at to determine if this program you’ve just described is really a good fit for my son?"

This is a good question and, aside from the peculiar looks she received when she mentioned the specifics of her son’s IQ, I can tell other parents are ready to hear the answer. In fact, readers of this column have asked me such questions in the past as well: How can you, as a parent, assess the efficacy or “worthiness” of a gifted program if you have a child who might benefit from it? The first part of my answer might surprise you so get ready.

Honestly, it might not matter all that much how “good” the program is.

I can already hear the screams of frustration some readers may have shrieked upon reading that last sentence. However, before you go on the attack, hear me out. As flippant as that comment might appear, I promise there is one research-based, consistently supported reason why including a child who is gifted in nearly any type of TAG or gifted program is recommended. It boils down to these two words: peer group. Placing a child with equal (or near-equal) intellectual peers would greatly benefit him on a day-to-day basis.

Gifted children can be pretty intense. They are inquisitive, sensitive, and motivated by the pursuit of deeper intellectual questions. Being part of a peer group that shares these qualities can help these children as they share their passions. Often gifted students feel more tempted to hide their true selves in a regular classroom; sharing a peer group of equal minds and learning styles makes it easier to be authentic.

Now, having said that, it is possible that you might find yourself in a situation where there is an alternative to the school’s gifted program. Perhaps there is a for-profit after-school enrichment option; or perhaps you are considering a move to a nearby private school. Fair enough. In this, case, I would ask the following questions to determine the quality of any gifted program.

  • What are the admittance requirements for students invited to attend? As in, ...96th percentile or higher on a standardized IQ or ability test?
  • What exact tests do they use to screen students? Are those tests nationally norm referenced or are they more a “performance-based” tasks? The latter can be a tad “iffier” as they are somewhat subjective.
  • What do they offer in their program that shows it really is differentiated for gifted students? Curricular acceleration? Staff that has a gifted endorsement? How much do they use pre- and post-tests to actually place students where they need to be? Do words like “compacting” and “tiered assignments” appear in their literature?
  • When it comes to whether or not that program will still be a good fit, be sure to ask what a typical day looks like or—better yet—see if you can make an appointment to visit and observe. Then you can judge better if your child will benefit from the change.

Finally, consider this: even if your child is not admitted (as was the case for the lady in that meeting described above), you might wish to appeal the decision. It is right and fair for you to advocate for your child so don’t hesitate to do so. You can learn more about those procedures here.

Now it’s your turn: Do you have any advice you would offer to readers and other parents of the gifted as they examine their child’s programs? If so, tell us in the comments.