Giftedness is not a number

Faculty essay by Nancy B. Hertzog

 

Imagine a bright five-year-old boy whose parents recently immigrated to Washington state. He's getting ready to start kindergarten speaking Spanish as his first language and qualifies for free and reduced lunch.

What are the odds he'll be identified as a highly-capable learner?

Unfortunately, his white classmates who are native English speakers and don't receive free/reduced lunch are 2.5 times more likely to receive the benefit of highly-capable services.

As he starts school, a cascade of experiences follows. The assumption that his potential isn't equal to his kindergarten classmates. The belief that the competencies he brings to the learning environment—speaking Spanish and learning English at the same time—are not as highly valued as the reading competencies of children who have had their favorite books read aloud to them for years. The missed opportunities to fully explore and realize his gifts are more than an individual tragedy. We all lose what he could contribute to our society.

Although Washington is a national leader in addressing the historic problem of disparities in who receives gifted education, we have yet to tackle the fundamental barrier to getting better at identifying and serving children from low-income homes. Namely, we continue to perpetuate outdated definitions and views of giftedness as a number.

Got Talent? Equity in Gifted Education

Students of color and from poor families are much less likely to be identified as gifted and talented and placed in a program for gifted youth. Professor Nancy Hertzog describes how the University of Washington is leading efforts to ensure all children have an equal opportunity to be identified as gifted.

In our state’s attempt to change the identification system, emphasis in the Washington Codes is being placed on universal screening, local norms and measures of non-verbal assessment—all of which focus on outdated, narrow definitions of gifted students as high IQ, placing in the top 3-5 percentile on a measure of cognitive ability. This focus on standardized testing is not the way to ensure equity. It carries an assumption that giftedness is relative to others and we need to offer services only to those children whose scores place them in an arbitrary top percentage of all test takers. However, this narrow definition on which state laws and policies are based ignores the inherent biases of standardized testing and the presumption that gifted students are defined by being compared to others.

Listen: Nancy Hertzog

First, it is problematic, assuming that language is the barrier for children who speak English as a second language, to mandate the use of nonverbal assessments when assessments are not available in one’s native language. Recent research tells us that districts should be cautious in their use of nonverbal ability tests (or any cognitive-based tests) and should recognize that, no matter how a test is advertised, the use of a nonverbal test alone will not result in proportional identification of highly-capable learners.

Moreover, the National Association for the Education of Young Children has guidelines that promote caution for using standardized testing with children ages preschool to 8. Yet Washington state law requires selection into highly-capable programs to be based on criteria benchmarked on local norms. Those norms rely upon standardized testing, even when we know that students from low-income homes, students who do not speak English as a first language, students with disabilities and young students should not have high stakes decisions such as admittance into gifted education programs made by using standardized instruments.

We should ask for learning environments where teachers challenge advanced learners appropriately and nurture the potential of all learners—creating a system where race, language and socioeconomic status do not predict student success.

For young children in particular, there are other means of finding out who needs advanced and accelerated instruction. Rather than mandating any particular form of standardized assessment, it would be much more educationally appropriate to provide many ways to assess learning needs and include those data points in a multiple criteria process.

Changing an inequitable system of gifted education also requires going beyond simply addressing identification methods. We need funding for professional development that addresses institutional racism, culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy, and thorough content knowledge on how to challenge all advanced learners.

Over the last 20 years, the federally-funded Javits grant program has supported the design of performance-based curriculum and instruction that provide opportunities for more students to demonstrate their strengths and talents. Washington is completing its third year of a Javits grant that funded the creation of two online courses (“Equity and Access” and “Pedagogies and Strategies that Enhanced Learning for All Students”). Each course has modules filled with readings, resources and practical strategies to bring teachers and school districts closer to equitable practices in gifted education.

We have yet to tackle the fundamental barrier to getting better at identifying and serving children from low-income homes. Namely, we continue to perpetuate outdated definitions and views of giftedness as a number.

This is a promising start, but we must also change laws in our state. Rather than perpetuating a system that still mandates finding “the most highly-capable” students, I encourage all who want equity in gifted education to ask for changes in the language of the law so that a test score doesn’t define the “most highly capable.”

We are looking for children who need advanced learning, and it should not matter how many there are with reference to others. We should ask for learning environments where teachers challenge advanced learners appropriately and nurture the potential of all learners—creating a system where race, language and socioeconomic status do not predict student success.

 

Nancy Hertzog is a professor of educational psychology and director of the Halbert and Nancy Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of Washington. Her most recent book is “Early childhood gifted education – Fostering talent development.”