Gifted Programs’ Embarrassing Secret

Changes are needed to achieve fair inclusion.

Posted Aug 10, 2016

Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D.
Source: Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D.

I loved being in the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program as a kid (abbreviated as GT in many states). Bearing this label in elementary school gave me temporary, enriching escapes from classes in which I didn’t feel challenged. In secondary schools, the GATE label landed me in college-level courses where I could unleash my mind and capabilities.

My GATE experiences are common amongst Mensans, as many Mensans were (or are) in GT/GATE programs or receive similar services designed to support bright kids. It makes sense: even GATE’s precursor in California (the Mentally Gifted Minor program established in 1961) identified its members by finding students who scored at or above the 98th percentile on intellectual ability tests. This 98th percentile is a familiar cutoff to Mensans, who qualify for the organization by scoring at or above the 98th percentile on a standardized intelligence test. Since 1980, however, school districts set their own entrance criteria for GATE, as do GT programs in other states.

These changes were typically meant to expand GT/GATE services to students extraordinary in a wider range of areas. As an educator myself, I know school districts largely embrace opportunities for greater inclusion in programs where students have added opportunities and tools to thrive. Sadly, gifted programs have an embarrassing secret tainting the noble endeavors of those who designed them and those who deliver the programs to children and teens:

  • Many gifted students are overlooked for inclusion in gifted programs, as their giftedness is never recognized within school districts.

This means many gifted students miss out on valuable opportunities and enrichment they are meant to receive.

Who Is Being Excluded?

Consider these statistics from my book Engaging & Challenging Gifted Students: Tips for Supporting Extraordinary Minds in Your Classroom (to be published by ASCD this October):

  • Females and English learners (ELs) are disproportionately overlooked in referrals for gifted services (Card & Giuliano, 2015).
  • Students are significantly less likely to receive gifted services if they are African American or Hispanic than if they are white, particularly when they have white teachers. For example, black students are half as likely as white students to be labeled gifted, even when their test scores are comparable (Grissom & Redding, 2016).
  • Socioeconomically-disadvantaged students are underrepresented in gifted programs even more than other student groups (Callahan, Moon, & Oh, 2014).

Groups underrepresented in gifted programs (e.g., African Americans, ELs, females, Hispanic, and poor) are just as likely to contain gifted kids as are other groups. Thus these statistics say nothing about students’ intellect but, instead, indicate students are being unjustly excluded.

How Can This Be Happening?

Sometimes teacher bias is to blame, often without teachers realizing they have these biases, when teachers are asked to recommend students for gifted testing. Daniel Kahneman’s (2011) book Thinking, Fast and Slow shows us just how complex and embedded a role human bias plays in thought processes and decision-making. Other times a student’s abilities are truly masked. For example, many experienced educators have missed the giftedness of a twice-exceptional (2E) child, such as that of a dyslexic gifted child who cannot read. Likewise, socioeconomically-disadvantaged students are typically underexposed to resources that can help them develop their talents, and this often makes their giftedness less obvious.

What Can Be Done to Equalize Access?

Parents and educators can push for the following practices:

  • School and district administrators should disaggregate GT/GATE enrollment data to identify any student subgroup (e.g., Hispanic) that holds a smaller percent-based presence in the GT/GATE program than it does in the general population. Such inconsistencies are red flags.
  • Districts should practice universal screening, which means testing all students for giftedness instead of testing only some students based on teachers’ or parents’ recommendations. The practice of universal screening renders large increases in EL, female, minority, and poor students identified for gifted programs, without the standards for identification being altered or lowered (Card & Giuliano, 2015).
  • More than one type of assessment should be available for GT/GATE testing. Scores from around 200 different tests are accepted by Mensa as evidence of qualifying intellect, which well suits people’s tendency to excel more in some cognitive tasks than in others. I know a 4th grade programming genius who didn’t qualify for GATE on the district’s single assessment involving visual puzzles, with which he just doesn’t connect. A range of assessments would have better captured this boy’s giftedness. He also happens to have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and is thus 2E – a group especially less likely to be identified for GT/GATE when assessment isn’t comprehensive.
  • At least one of a district’s GT/GATE assessments should be “culture fair” with reduced bias. This is especially important for ELs and students born abroad.
  • Districts should implement professional development curriculum specifically designed to conquer disparity. For example, Yes, You Can!: Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color, an excellent book by Dr. Gail Thompson and Rufus Thompson (2014), helps staff support all diverse groups of students. Likewise, schools can join the Illuminate Using Random Acts of Kindness to Improve Race Relations and Foster Cultural Awareness in Schools and Society Project to support disparity-conquering endeavors.
  • Parents should be strong advocates for their children, citing this and other literature as necessary. They can prompt other parents to do the same, and can invite other families to join them on their educational excursions. This is especially important for socioeconomically disadvantaged students, whose giftedness can be less apparent if exposure to mind-nurturing experiences is limited.

Once someone knows gifted programs’ embarrassing secret, there is much he or she can do to help these valuable programs include all students they are intended to help.

Reprinted with permission from the Mensa Oracle.


Callahan, C. M., Moon, T. R., & Oh, S. (2014). National surveys of gifted programs executive summary. Charlottesville, VA: National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented University of Virginia.

Card, D., & Giuliano, L. (2015). Can universal screening increase the representation of low income and minority students in gifted education? (Working Paper No. 21519). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

Grissom, J. A., Redding, C. (2016, January). Discretion and disproportionality: Explaining the underrepresentation of high-achieving students of color in gifted programs. AERA Open, retrieved from Sage Journals, doi: 10.1177/2332858415622175

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Thompson, G. L., & Thompson, R. (2014). Yes, you can!: Advice for teachers who want a great start and a great finish with their students of color. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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