Identifying and supporting gifted students from underserved communities

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Dina Brulles

Cesar, a first grader, scored 92 percent on the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT2). Although he did not officially qualify for gifted education services (requiring a score of 97 percent or higher), the school’s gifted specialist “flexed” Cesar into the gifted cluster class because of his ELL status. Cesar attends one of the district’s Title I schools (where they have few gifted-identified students), so they were able to offer him this participation. In third grade, Cesar took the gifted test again, and with his new score in the ninety-eighth percentile, he was officially identified as gifted. Cesar continued receiving advanced academic instruction through the cluster grouping model and then in honors classes. Had he not been tested on a nonverbal assessment and then flexed into the program in first grade, his teachers may not have recognized his high potential.

Those in low socioeconomic groups remain largely underserved in gifted and talented (G/T) programs. Yet gifted and talented students span all cultures and socioeconomic groups. The inequity stems from two primary challenges. First, considerable controversy surrounds what it means to be gifted. States and school districts vary greatly in their identification procedures, program qualification criteria, and instructional methods. Second, educators wrestle with how to identify and then structure services for gifted students who are either not proficient in English or not currently academically advanced.

Schools can identify, group, and serve their diverse range of gifted students by:

  • Increasing the gifted program’s diversity by providing professional development and identifying culturally and linguistically diverse students;
  • Enfranchising learners from disadvantaged and underrepresented populations by including them in their regular gifted services; and
  • Monitoring the academic growth of all G/T students to structure services and professional learning.

Identifying hidden potential

Gifted programs that require advanced academic achievement for receiving services create the unintended outcome of under-identifying—and thereby denying appropriately advanced instruction to—some students with exceptional potential. In many cases, identification and program placement, as well as school policies, prevent students from participating in G/T services. Schools must expand views on gifted qualification and provide tiered levels of gifted services and instruction based on students’ needs. This expansion helps create systems that incorporate multiple identification criteria to search for students with potential to achieve at higher levels.

How can program administrators gauge whether they appropriately serve their culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students and those from low-income families? The school population, demographics, and available resources should influence how students are identified and served.

  • Compare student demographic data to gifted population demographics to determine which populations are underrepresented.
  • Explore alternative methods for identification and services.
  • Incorporate culturally sensitive procedures for identifying all students with high ability, with special attention to those from diverse populations.

Providing programming

Schools can provide full-time attention toward gifted education instruction at each school through cluster grouping. In this model, all students identified as gifted, including ELL students, former ELL students, and students not yet achieving highly, are automatically placed on the school’s gifted rosters and scheduled into gifted-cluster classrooms (and/or participate in the school’s gifted program). This recognizes that gifted programs need not cater solely to students who learn at advanced levels, resulting in more inequitable educational opportunities.

Using a cluster grouping model, schools identify one classroom at each grade level where gifted students are grouped with a trained gifted-cluster teacher. Cluster teachers are expected to plan appropriately challenging instruction that involves acceleration, enrichment, and extended learning opportunities.

Title I schools commonly have few students identified as gifted. Some school districts “flex” into cluster classes students who score highly on the gifted tests but do not formally qualify as gifted. Close monitoring of the students’ progress should accompany this practice to ensure the placement benefits these students. If students are not making appropriate academic progress, evaluate the instructional methods being used to determine how better to support them.

Siria came to her new school early in October of her third-grade year. She tested into the English Language Development (ELD) program as an emergent English language speaker at a Title I school. Upon entering her class, Siria’s ELL teacher, Mrs. Munoz, immediately recognized that the girl had exceptional insight and learned rapidly. Siria exited the ELD program in record time, was identified as gifted on a nonverbal ability test, and then was grouped together with other gifted students in her fourth-grade year. Mrs. Munoz recognized Siria’s potential because she had participated in a district training on identifying giftedness in culturally and linguistically diverse students.

Schools that group their gifted students should ask themselves the following questions to document progress and determine effectiveness:

  • Is the ethnic representation of the gifted population served reflective of the school’s demographics?;
  • Do teachers receive the training necessary to understand the affective and academic needs of their diverse gifted students?;
  • Do the designated cluster teachers have the tools and training necessary to differentiate instruction, accelerate curriculum, and provide enrichment?; and
  • Are the various groups of gifted students making significant yearly academic progress yearly in the core content areas?

Train teachers serving diverse populations to:

  • Recognize and nurture behaviors usually demonstrated by CLD gifted students;
  • Create conditions in which all students will be stretched to learn;
  • Incorporate students’ diverse interests into their independent studies;
  • Facilitate research in a way that builds upon cultural influences; and
  • Provide flexible grouping opportunities for the entire class.

There is no perfect system for identifying and addressing the potential of students from low-income families, from diverse cultures, or for whom English is a second language. Students like Cesar and Siria benefit when the district directs attention to equity in excellence for all student groups.

Dina Brulles, Ph.D., is a school administrator and the gifted education director for Arizona’s Paradise Valley Unified School District. Dr. Brulles serves on the NAGC Board of Directors.

Editor's note: This post first appeared in a slightly different form on the Free Spirit Publishing blog.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.