Reaching the Gifted: Assessment and Identification

Back in the early 80s, before the current group of college undergraduates were even born, I started my education career as a substitute in an elementary school in New York City. It was a wonderful experience, learning from different teachers and meeting different types of students from all over the world. I did this while I was still completing my undergraduate courses in education.

One of the classes I subbed for on an ongoing basis was a 5th grade for gifted students. As I got to know more about this group and the activities planned for them, I realized that not all the gifted students in the school were in this class, and that I had studied more about teaching gifted learners than the tenured teacher. She was a fine teacher, and it was a great class and a good experience. The kids loved her, and I admired her a great deal. But her qualifications for getting the plum assignment of the “good” class were seniority based – and her reward, teaching the “good” students, was viewed by some of her colleagues with jealousy. Some of the kids were truly gifted. But I wondered at the time if what passed for “gifted” in this school was really just “smart, tidy, and well mannered”. Her students always wanted more worksheets to show just what they could do, and always performed well on standardized tests.

Many administrators avoid the designation of gifted for students, because it can open up some touchy issues. Nevertheless, it is important to systematically identify gifted learners and provide them with an education that suits their specific needs. Without the proper guidance, a gifted student can turn into a gifted troublemaker!

The National Association for Gifted Children has published standards for the assessment and identification of gifted learners. What is clear is that often the students who fit the definition of “gifted” are not the ones who would be casually identified, or even the ones who test well. Gifted students include the smart and neat, the learning disabled, those with ADHD, and those from dysfunctional or socio economically deprived backgrounds. When a variety of assessment instruments are used, and diverse talents and strengths are identified, the gifted “class” can often include students who would not stereotypically be defined as “gifted”.

Programming for gifted students can only be as effective as the efforts made to match students with that programming, so identification of a gifted learner and their abilities is very important. Pull out programs that only concentrate on limited areas of expertise send a mixed message. I recall when my son was identified in third grade for the gifted program at his elementary school. He was pulled out for two half hour sessions a week for “thinking games” which was great, but not enough. The teacher for the pullout went from school to school. She did a great job, but the district treated her services as frills. We joked that she provided “brains on a cart”. Gifted children also could come to school early on Tuesdays for a choice of bridge building or painting. They could not do both. He was not very good, or very interested in either. He wanted to write stories, learn about outer space, and talk about US Presidents. He became very discouraged, and his overall performance declined. He said it was as if you were only allowed to be gifted at art or bridge building – no storytellers need apply. He tried the bridge building – he got interested in the activity, but not enough to get to school early. He also felt that he was only allowed to be “smart” during the pull out period. The solution at that time was ultimately, and expensively, a private school where smart children were encouraged all day long.

Today he has a 4.0 average in college, where he majors in English with the ambition to become a writer and a teacher.

Education of the gifted is a rewarding and continuing challenge. The identification of gifted students must be systematic and ongoing. NAGC has on their website standards for testing, resources for teachers and parents in programming and advocacy, and encouragement for all to reach beyond preparing our children for the world to preparing the world for our children! Learn more about them here: