Identifying Gifted Students: Who Gets Tested and Why
By David Palmer, Ph.D
As a parent, you're probably aware that many schools offer special
classes or other services for kids that are identified as
But how do schools go about identifying who to test and who needs
gifted program services in order to flourish? Not all bright
children are gifted, and not all gifted children are so different
from their peers that they need special support. For this reason,
nearly all districts have developed a systematic way to screen
students for such programs.
There is no federal law that mandates how school districts
identify gifted children, and there is no universal agreement as to
what constitutes intelligence or "giftedness." Still, many districts
use an individually administered IQ test as at least part of their
screening process - and those that do often use the IQ score as the
primary condition of placement. However flawed or controversial
these tests may be, they are arguably the best tool we have to find
kids who learn differently.
IQ tests measure such things as problem solving skills, memory,
and the ability to understand and use language - some of the same
skills that are used in the classroom. It follows, then, that those
who score unusually well on these tests will likely be unusual
learners who need a program that is different than that provided in
the most classrooms.
But which kids should the schools test? One obstacle involves
trying to distinguish bright, high-achieving students who may be
best served in a traditional classroom from those who have such
advanced abilities, and learn so differently, that they need a
different kind of school experience to succeed.
This distinction would be easy if all gifted children acted the
same. But, of course, they don't. In fact, they are often more
different from one another than they are from many of their
Some are highly excitable and outgoing, while others are quiet
Some excel academically, while others are underachievers
Some appear extremely focused in the classroom, while others
appear highly inattentive
Some are model students, never getting into any trouble at
school, while others always seem to test the rules
Using a limited approach to identification, such as teacher
recommendation or a review of grades or achievement test scores,
just won't work. High-achieving children may be identified this way,
but not the intellectually gifted. For this reason, most districts
use a multifaceted approach to identification, basing the selection
of children on a variety of screening methods. Each district will
have a specific person or team who determines what criteria to use.
Some may rate children on a point scale in several areas, including
how they score on an individual IQ test, and then offer gifted
program services to those receiving a certain number of points.
Others use multiple screening methods largely to select children for
an individual IQ test and then use the score on that test as the
final criterion on which selection is made.
Here are some selection criteria that many districts commonly use
when selecting for gifted programs.
Rating Scales: The rater will be asked to compare the child to a
list of characteristics that are typically associated with gifted
Formal Observation: Once a child has been nominated by a teacher
or a parent, someone from the school or district may do a formal
observation in the classroom as a way to gather further information
and get an objective second opinion regarding the recommendation
Input From Past Teachers: Previous teachers may be interviewed or
asked to complete a rating scale, to get their perspective on the
child's learning needs
A Review of Past Grades or Test Scores: The child's current and
past grades, scores on state achievement tests, and any other class
or school-wide achievement testing will be reviewed. The district
may require that a student's grades and test scores meet a certain
standard for the screening process to continue.
Parent Interest: At some point in the screening process a
district representative will ask parents if they are interested in
having their child participate in the program.
Student Interest and Attitudes: A child who is being considered
for a gifted program may be interviewed or asked to complete an
Placement Trials: Students may be placed on a trial basis in a
classroom or group where the teacher uses the same type of learning
strategies that are used by the school's gifted program teachers.
Portfolio Review: Part of the process of screening for a gifted
education program may include a review of the student's work samples
collected over time in such portfolios. The student's work may be
evaluated against the work of others for such characteristics as
quality, depth, effort, and ability.
Group IQ Tests: Districts will often screen large groups of
children - sometimes entire grades - with a group IQ test at a
predetermined time each year. For example, every October all second
graders in a district will be administered a group IQ test by their
teachers. Many gifted kids don't shine in school - their abilities
may be masked by boredom, frustration, disorganization, or other
common traits of giftedness. Group tests are often used as an
objective way to identify children for further screening who may
have been overlooked.
Group test scores are not considered to be as reliable as
individually administered IQ test scores. For this reason, a child's
performance on a group test is usually not the main factor on which
a gifted program placement is made. More likely, a child's score on
these tests will be used in conjunction with other criteria when
determining eligibility. Or the group test score will be used to
determine whether a child is a good candidate to be tested with an
individually administered IQ test.
Your Child and the Screening Process
Using the strategies outlined in this chapter, schools should be
able to identify most students who would benefit from a gifted
education placement, so you may not need to do anything to ensure
that your child is being fairly evaluated by “the system.”
Yet, there may be times when you feel that the school is missing
something about your child, and you'd like to be sure that he or she
is being given the same consideration and opportunities as others.
Maybe you've heard from other parents that their children are
being screened for the district's program, and you're thinking,
“What about my kid? I know she's just as smart!" Or you find out
that your child was being considered but did not "make the cut" for
some reason. While you don't want to be perceived as overly
protective or pushy, you also want to make sure that those making
the decisions have all the information they need to truly understand
Some gifted children are not identified because their potential
is masked by personality traits - such as shyness, low frustration
tolerance, or an overly easy-going nature. Giftedness may also be
hidden by a child's social and language background, or by a specific
learning disability (yes, kids can be both gifted and learning
disabled – these are sometimes called twice exceptional or “2E”
kids). If you believe this is true in your child's case, you may
want to talk with the teacher and share your thoughts.
Parents and teachers are a child's most important allies and they
need to keep each other informed and up to date. Each sees the child
from a different perspective and each has a particular insight into
a child's learning needs.
As a parent, you've watched your child's development since birth.
You've seen him at home, at play, with friends, and with family.
You're in a good position to truly understand his specific
interests, temperament, unique gifts, strengths, and limitations.
The teacher, on the other hand, has had an opportunity to
evaluate your child's learning style, academic skills, and social
and cognitive development in comparison to a large number of other
children of the same age. It doesn't take long for most experienced
teachers to develop an intuitive sense of their students' strengths
and needs - to evaluate how quickly they learn, the type of
instruction they respond to best, and their attitudes toward school.
The teacher may also help you to better understand the district's
gifted education program and how it is different than what your
child is already receiving.
Together, you should be able to get a more complete, objective
view than either of you had on your own. Maybe you'll come to
realize that your child would be better off in a general education
program since his learning style would not mesh with the type of
curriculum being used in the district's gifted program. On the other
hand, the teacher may consider taking a second look at your child in
light of the extra information you have given her.
Most importantly, stay focused on working together as a team to
come up with ideas and solutions that will work for your child.
Dr. David Palmer is an educational psychologist and author of the
newly released Book,
Parents' Guide to IQ Testing and Gifted Education: All You Need to Know to Make the Right Decisions for Your
Child, available online and through Barnes and Noble and other fine