Is your child gifted? That depends on the school.

My son has attended three schools in the last three years and if there is one thing I have learned, it is that no school does anything the same. A good example is snack. Last year, it had to be fruits and vegetables only, at this school, it has to be fresh fruits and vegetables only, nothing canned or packaged. At the first school, Oreos and Chips Ahoy were fair game.

I am finding the same is true when it comes to the policy in place for identifying gifted students. Last year my son was placed into both language arts and math enrichment based on test scores and teacher input. He also qualified for outside enrichment in language arts, math and science through Northwestern CTD based on scores from a different set of tests. This year, he has been placed into the gifted program for math now based on test scores only but conditionally for language arts starting this winter.

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles,

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles,

How can different schools have varying assessments of my son? I started to understand more once I saw how wildly different the processes are among schools for identifying gifted students.

To illustrate, for initial placement, my son’s new school district uses test scores only, specifically the CogAT and MAP. Math placement requires a quantitative CogAT score and a math MAP score above the 93rd percentile. Similarly, language arts placement requires a verbal CogAT score and a reading MAP score above the 93rd percentile. In contrast, his district last year (Elmhurst District 205) used MAP scores, another ability assessment such as CogAT and teacher input collected over a period of time. Test scores had to be above the 95th percentile.

I was curious about what other districts did and as my search grew, so did the number of possibilities for testing for gifted identification. Glenview (District 34) uses this two-tiered approach that takes place over several months that starts with composite CogAT scores and MAP scores along with parent and teacher input. At that point, qualifying students take three other tests and those scores are reviewed for entry into the program.

More formal research also points out how varied identification processes are. In the 2013 Status of Elementary Gifted Programs published by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, a wide variety of identification procedures are cited by the responding school districts. Most include the use of standardized testing but there was a wide variety in not only the number and types of tests administered, but also how they are used for placement purposes. According to the report, of the 359 districts who participated, by my count there were at least 52 test types administered. Once testing was completed, some used minimum score cutoffs, others combined scores and arrived at a minimum composite, and others used ranges of scores.

In the survey, the CogAT that my son took was the most commonly used in the gifted identification process and while it is group administered to all students (a good thing), there are shortfalls as well. My son’s program contains a parent resource page which includes this slide presentation from Hoagies’ on testing and assessment. On group ability tests like the CogAT and OLSAT, “gifted children often overthink the questions” and a study (although the study itself wasn’t cited) showed “a reverse correlation between group ability scores and gifted children, the more gifted, the lower the test score.” So, what do these scores really mean?

As you can see, the processes are all over the map, no pun intended. Some are based on test scores only on one day, other screenings take several months and include test scores, teacher and parent input. Others fall somewhere in between.

I suppose one contributing factor is that there is no universal definition for what a gifted student is. Each state uses it’s own definition and based on this list, they are all different although most contain a clause pertaining to high ability or high achievement. In Illinois, the definition is:

“Sec. 14A-20. Gifted and talented children. For purposes of this Article, “gifted and talented children” means children and youth with outstanding talent who perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with other children and youth of their age, experience, and environment. A child shall be considered gifted and talented in any area of aptitude, and, specifically, in language arts and mathematics, by scoring in the top 5% locally in that area of aptitude.”

It is worth noting that Illinois is one of only two states that uses a numeric cutoff in the definition. Oklahoma uses “top 3 percent nationally on any standardized test of intellectual ability.” Illinois uses “top 5% locally in that area of aptitude” for language arts and math.

This is significant for two reasons. First, the use of a cutoff in the definition leads to the use of test cutoffs, a practice frowned upon by the National Association of Gifted Children. This view shows up several times in the 2013 report cited above but in looking at examples of how districts identify gifted students, in their example a district that used two tests with a 96th percentile cutoff, “the district does use more than one measure for identification that on first glance may be seen as reflecting good practice. However, a student must achieve at an arbitrary percentile on both in order to be identified for gifted services. Though the district has taken a first step by using more than one identification tool, the use of arbitrary cut-off scores is a poor example of recommended practice relying on multiple hurdles.”

The second reason is the use of “locally” as opposed to national percentiles. Often, as was the case with my son’s scores this year, the percentiles given for the qualifying tests were national percentiles. How do I know if he scored in the top 5% locally, or not?

Of course, I am fortunate to live in a district that provides enrichment services to its gifted students. In Connecticut, while identification was required, services were not and many districts, including ours, did not have a gifted program.

There is no uniform process in place and I don’t understand why that is. I am not an educator so maybe those who are can shed some light on this to help me understand. I am not sure of this is a good analogy but the college admissions process comes to mind. Yes, we have our high school juniors take the SAT and/or ACT but several other criteria like grades, essay, teacher recommendations are used to decide admission. The process is essentially the same although admitting criteria are different.

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