Nancy M. Robinson
University of Washington
Gifted children are an ill-served group of special-needs students. Few psychologists have had training in addressing their needs, and even those who are trained usually must turn most of their attention to students with disabilities and/or mental health concerns. As a result, gifted children are often subjected to a critical mismatch with their educational environments, with multiple consequences for their learning and attainment, their motivation, and their personal adjustment. This article summarizes research about the assessment of academically gifted students in the context of the author’s clinical experience and addresses the kinds of advocacy a psychologist can offer (see Robinson, 2002 for complete research monograph).
In comparison with other diagnostic categories, there exists no clear definition of giftedness. Indeed, the group is highly diverse in the domains and levels of their abilities as well as their personal characteristics. Although there is no firm agreement on a definition, nor about the meanings attached to gifts and talents, the most widely accepted definition of giftedness stresses performance, or potential for performance, at remarkably high levels of accomplishment, resulting in a need for services not ordinarily provided in the schools (U.S. Department of Education, 1993). States and school districts often adopt somewhat arbitrary operational criteria to designate whom they will serve, and it is those rules that govern the tests and scores that are locally acceptable (in conjunction with other evidence such as portfolios and behavior ratings) and create local de facto operational definitions.
Just as no consensus exists with regard to a definition, none exists with regard to terms to be used for levels of giftedness. Leaving aside the terms suggested in test manuals, probably the most frequent terms that applied in this field to test scores are “mildly gifted” (115-129), “moderately gifted” (130-144), “highly gifted” (145-159), and “exceptionally gifted” (160+), which relate to standard deviation units on the normal curve. Very high scores are to be expected very infrequently. For example, IQs above 130 are expected in 2/100 students, but IQs above 160, only in 3/100,000.
If all is going well with a gifted student, one is likely to see tell-tale signs of advancement such as the following:
- Rapid learning, at an earlier age than classmates
- Intellectual passions—intense curiosity and deep interests
- Exceptional reasoning and memory
- Frequent step-skipping in problem-solving and unexpected strategies
- Capacity for reasoning on an abstract level; sometimes rejecting hands-on instruction (or, conversely, preferring visual-spatial to verbal mode)
- Pleasure in posing original, difficult questions
- Ideas that sound “off the wall,” but are the product of divergent thinking
- Advanced sense of humor; making puns that other children do not “get”
- Reaching for excellence; perfectionism that can be asset or liability
- Greater personal maturity than exhibited by classmates
- Concerns like those of older students’
- Mature notions of friendship and disappointment when friends do not reciprocate their yearning for stability, loyalty, and intimacy.
But if the educational setting is under-challenging or if something at home or in peer relationships is going wrong, then you may see:
Externalizing issues such as
- Impatience, irritability, negativity, arrogance
- What appears to be AD/HD, but is merely the result of boredom
- Bossiness; dominance of class discussion
- Hypersensitivity about perceived injustices
- Refusal to do “busy work” or “baby stuff”
- Low tolerance for truly challenging material
Internalizing issues such as
- Underachievement (which may arise from other causes as well)
- Inattention to classroom activities; daydreaming; “sneak reading”
- Somatic problems on school days only; crying and tantrums at home
- Desperate attempts to be “just like everyone else”
- Lack of joi de vivre if not outright depression.
Like all other students, gifted students need challenges matched to their pace and level of learning. A differentiated curriculum will benefit all students in a classroom, and includes compacting (assessment of a student’s mastery of material before it is taught, to avoid wasting time on what is already known); classroom practices that employ flexible grouping, tiered assignments, and encouragement of independence; and, for more competent students, substitution of more advanced work, deepening understanding, drawing connections, and applying knowledge to the real world.
As the professional who is likely to have the most comprehensive information about the student and the schools, the psychologist is often in a special position to act as advocate in partnership with parents and teachers.
It is useful to distinguish between activities that make a fundamental adjustment in the student’s regular school day, and those that are complementary to it. Distinctions between accelerative options (adjusting the pace and level of instruction) and enrichment options (extending the curriculum only). A smorgasbord of educational options for gifted students exists, including a variety of home schooling alternatives, in addition to those listed in the Table 1.
A Smorgasbord of Educational Options for Gifted Students
Assessment is never warranted unless it will make a difference in a youngster’s life. In the absence of any referral question, testing simply to obtain a score is always inappropriate. There are, however, a number of situations in which assessment of a gifted child’s abilities and skills can make a difference:
- Help with parenting
- Educational planning by parents (guiding development at home and school)
- Determining eligibility for a program (the most frequent reason for testing gifted students, although often the test is group-administered)
- Cognitive testing (ability and achievement)
- Visual-spatial testing (generally not effective as a selection tool)
- Creativity as a qualification for services (discouraged as a qualifier)
- Determining needed adjustments in the school curriculum and school placement (including acceleration)
- Assessing “twice exceptional” children with learning disabilities who may achieve on grade level
- Labeling may bring understanding and services
- It is often difficult to differentiate between “normal” asynchrony of abilities, and learning disabilities
- Writing disability is perhaps the most common in gifted students
- Most gifted children love to read, and those who do not may have subtle problems
- Whether a student with a learning disability should be offered a special program for gifted students must be decided on a highly individual basis
- Exploring behavioral issues, including arrogant, hard-to-teach students; those with inattention, impulsivity, and/or hyperactivity; those whose performance is declining or chronically low; students succumbing to peer pressure; students with depression; and students with social interaction deficits
- Describing the attainments of exceedingly bright students who are so significantly advanced that their talents are masked in the school setting.
A comprehensive assessment of gifted students goes far beyond testing. Although psychologists working in school settings will seldom be able to attain this ideal, because of too-heavy case loads, and even those in private practice will have limits on their time, it is important to keep the complexity of the issues in mind. Elements of a comprehensive assessment include:
- Clarifying the referral
- Gathering school information and school records
- Conducting a comprehensive parent interview covering their concerns; evidence of advancement; child’s history, skills, characteristics, interests, and activities; parents’ philosophies and parenting skills; parental history including extended family; and information about other professionals who may be involved
- Conversing with the child about views of sameness and difference from classmates and friends; view of school and how it might be improved; and what and how he/she would like to learn
- Testing, including intellectual and achievement, and measures of social adjustment and maturity.
Because of limited resources, group testing is often the method districts must use. Individual tests are, however, thought to be more nearly accurate. It is important to use current tests with sufficient range and high ceilings, resorting to tests standardized for older students if necessary. The nature of the tests should fit the program. Since most special programs are highly verbal, the tests should probably be verbal as well. In an effort to increase diversity in enrollment, many districts have adopted the use of visual-spatial tests, but these tests often are a poor fit for the actual programs provided.
“Tricks of the trade” in testing gifted children include a flexible use of basals and ceilings, minimizing timed tests, starting tests at a higher entry point than usual for the student’s age, and recognizing limitations in the reliability of high scores. The tester should also be prepared to see substantial discrepancies among subtests and domains as a “normal” aspect of giftedness, and to see discrepancies in results between reasoning tests and those more dependent on instruction.
The psychologist should also be prepared for special situations not usually encountered with non-gifted students. These include personality issues such as students who are used to knowing all the answers and who are fragile in the face of challenges; students who are realistically anxious about the outcome of high-stakes testing; perfectionistic or meticulous students; and students who hate to give up before they get an answer, either because they are so excited by the challenge or because of their strong academic work ethic. The psychologist will also need to be prepared to deal with highly gifted students, very young students, and even the rare student who has been coached or recently tested with the same instrument.
Contemporary tests are carefully developed and monitored to keep them from being “biased” in the way that is ordinarily thought they are—that is, unduly tilted for or against a particular ethnic group. True bias in testing means that the same score has different implications or predictive value for members of one group than another. Generally speaking, that is not the case with the tests we use today. And yet, real-life circumstances have made it much more difficult for economically and socially stressed parents to bring children up in an optimal fashion, consistent with their developing into gifted students. There have been a number of efforts to find alternative ways to find promising students, especially those from disadvantaged minorities and those whose primary language is not English. These methods have had variable success, but the goal of increasing diversity is so important that the efforts have high priority. Professionals are in the difficult position of balancing the predictive power of the tests with the goal of enhancing diversity. Portfolio assessments, behavioral rating scales, hands-on performance tasks, and observations are among the tools being used.
The psychologist who works with gifted children is often in for a special treat. Many of these children love adult company, are energized by the intellectual challenge, need few reminders to keep focused, “catch onto” what the psychologist is asking, enjoy the subtle jokes built into the tests, give uncommonly fresh answers, make connections between ideas, and are meta-thinkers who share their original problem-solving strategies. Their families often put to good use what the psychologist recommends. The psychologist who accepts the challenge of working with gifted-or potentially gifted-students has a special opportunity to make a significant difference not only in the life of the student, but ultimately, in our society as well.