A two-phase approach that relies on data schools already have available can help educators identify a diverse pipeline of gifted and talented students, according to a new guide from NWEA, an educational research and assessment company.
The guide also encourages districts to eliminate barriers that are keeping some kids from being considered for advanced work. NWEA recommends that in phase one, schools use a universal screener. Those students who meet a predetermined criteria or cut score are given further consideration at phase two where multiple data points are collected to make decisions about program placement.
"The simplest thing districts could do is get rid of that referral-based system and instead use the data they already have on hand," said Scott Peters, author of the guide and senior research scientist at NWEA.
Although the guide refers to the use of NWEA's Map Growth assessments to help inform placement decisions, other student information — including state summative assessments — can be part of the process for eligibility determinations, Peters said.
School districts around the country are analyzing and reforming their gifted and talented programs to ensure expanded access, particularly for students of color, students from low-income families and students with disabilities.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education announced last month it was putting $3.5 million toward an equity initiative for gifted education. The funding will go toward technical assistance to help schools identify and serve students underrepresented in gifted classes, according to a department statement.
"Through collaboration and the use of evidence-based practices, the Pennsylvania Gifted Equity Initiative will create systems-level change to benefit students, families, and communities across the Commonwealth,” said Pennsylvania Education Secretary Khalid Mumin, in a statement.
According to a report by the National Association for Gifted Children and the Council of State Directors of Programs for the Gifted, survey responses of state gifted education representatives from 44 states found that for the 2020-21 school year, 10 states had a policy or initiative to address equity gaps in gifted programming, 21 states did not, and 13 reported that such initiatives are determined at the district level.
NWEA's two-phase recommended approach emphasizes that well-designed gifted placement criteria can help schools identify advanced learners more equitably by not missing students due to irrelevant factors such as lack of an initial referral. Here are more details about this approach:
Phase one. Rather than rely on teacher and parent referrals, which can be subjective, the report recommends schools use a universal screener. This approach makes sure every student has access to the eligibility process. Using predetermined criteria based on performances from the universal screener can help identify students for consideration in phase two.
”Right now, we don't test any kids unless the teacher refers them, so we miss most kids who would have done well," particularly those students from underrepresented populations, said Peters.
When considering the criteria for identification of students further, Peters recommends schools evaluate whether that benchmark is adding an inappropriate hurdle for students. Such a case, for example, would require a certain score on a math assessment for admission into a dance program, he said.
"What I see as the most common example of an inappropriate barrier is the domain is kind of right — math to math —- but it's the degree to which you have to be scoring is just way too high given the services," Peters said.
Phase two. At this stage, MAP Growth or other assessments can be used, but eligibility decisions should be based on multiple data points, which could include grades and other student information.
Peters said some states are prescriptive in how schools qualify for students for gifted and talented or advanced work, while others are not. Georgia, for example, requires that one pathway for students to be identified for gifted classwork is a 96th percentile score on a “mental ability” test and a 90th percentile score in a specific academic area such as reading or math, according to the NWEA report.
Using data points from adaptive assessments that can measure above grade level skills can be helpful in this phase, Peters said.
"The biggest place where I see districts go wrong with this is they set that phase two criteria just too high, and a lot of times that's to limit the number of kids who qualify," Peters said.
If space is limited in gifted programs, school staff could consider other approaches that could support advanced learners, such as allowing a 3rd grader to participate in 4th grade math classes or regularly analyzing student data to discuss which students are being underchallenged, Peters said.