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What Makes a Student “Gifted”? Let Us Know If You Figure It Out

What Makes a Student Gifted Let Us Know If You Figure It Out Brad Flickinger

Brad Flickinger

William Van Ornum - published on 05/05/14

No one likes IQ tests, but can you think of a better way?

This is part one of a multi-part series on education.

Testing and assessing the nation’s children is a controversial task.

In the past few weeks there have been stories and statistics about how many parents are keeping their children out of the year-end standardized testing in their schools. One of the concerns is that the bar is set too high and that many children will unfairly fail.

At the same time there are rumblings if not loud announcements of how far the United States is falling behind other countries in educating its young people. Statistics abound concerning the small numbers of engineers who graduate in the United States versus those in Asian countries such as India and China. Statistics put out by the United Nations show that there are other nations – less economically blessed – whose students are functioning at a higher level in reading and math. In these places poverty does not correlate with underachievement.

Flying under the radar is the new America Competes Act (Public Law 110 – 69). This law was initially signed by President George Bush and has been validated again by President Obama. It has received bipartisan support, and hopes to upgrade education in science, technology, education, and math (STEM). Many of these are historically the qualities that gifted students have been described as possessing.  This Act is beginning to be implemented, but it is only the beginning, and much has to be done to decide how to “assess” giftedness. Notice I am not using the word “testing” here – more approaches need to be developed to identify gifted children.

The federal definition of students who are gifted is vague. There are no precise mathematical cutoffs. The guidelines state that young people who are gifted show outstanding talent, or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with other children of their age, experience, or environment. The areas covered by the federal definition include intellectual; creative and artistic areas; unusual leadership capacity; or, excellence in specific academic fields. They require services or activities not ordinarily provided by schools. Gifted children are present in children and youth from all cultural groups, across all economic strata, and in all areas of human endeavor.

Traditional intelligence tests have been one of the ways – perhaps the most common way – that giftedness has been measured in the past. These test measure abilities such as vocabulary, social comprehension, higher-order abstract thinking in metaphors, or verbal arithmetic skills, visual alertness and visual sequencing, and eye hand coordination with patterns.

School districts have used IQ cutoff scores of 130 and 120 to identify gifted children. The first includes students who are in the top 2nd percentile of everyone taking the test. The second includes about the top 8th percentile. There are advantages to each of these cutoffs; in today’s economy it might be more economically advisable to choose the upper level, although this can be decided by any school district.

When looking at the federal definition of giftedness above, it is clear that intelligence tests cannot and do not measure all of the talents to find in the federal law. Intelligence tests cannot capture creative or artistic children’s strengths, nor can they denote those students with unusual leadership capacity. There may be specific academic areas such as foreign languages for which outstanding performance would qualify students or special gifted activities in teaching – but again, the test does not cover these.

However, in areas such as performance in doctoral scientific programs or engineering programs, the intelligence tests often do a good job in identifying who will be good in these programs.

Since the federal government has given a vague definition of giftedness – unlike, for example, the definition of mental retardation – educators and psychologists may put off coming up with further assessments for fear of criticism or of leaving some gifted children out. So many gifted children remain unclassified and there is federal money that is not being spent.

Many educators view portfolios is an excellent way of identifying gifted children. In a portfolio, the student and teacher in a particular grade decide what kinds of assignments will be evaluated over the year. These can be in paper form or electronically. Portfolios can include writing assignments, mathematical assignments, tapes and videos of plays or music, art assignments and awards. One problem with portfolios is that different people evaluating them may come up with different conclusions. The state of Vermont during the 1990s tried them, found them wanting, and went back to traditional testing.

The implementation of Public Law 110-69 has implications for both public, private, and Catholic schools. Homeschoolers may also find it of interest. I think it is important to examine this area of education and public policy since the headlines predominate on other topics in education.

Part II will examine the topic further.

William Van Ornum is professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research and development/grants at American Mental Health Foundation in New York City. He studied theology and scripture at DePaul University.

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