Teacher Bias in Identifying Gifted and Talented Students

Spring 2000 Masthead

Teri Powell
Joint School District #2
Meridian, ID

Del Siegle
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

Teachers are often asked to nominate students for gifted and talented programs. Whether or not teachers are qualified identifiers of gifted students has been the topic of much debate throughout the years (Gagné, 1994; Hoge & Cudmore, 1986; Pegnato & Birch, 1959; Rohrer, 1995). The purpose of this study was to identify student characteristics that might influence teacher referrals for gifted and talented programs.

Teachers as Raters of Giftedness

Pegnato and Birch (1959) compared the efficiency and effectiveness of seven different methods of identifying gifted students and observed that “teachers do not locate gifted children effectively or efficiently enough to place much reliance on them for screening” (p. 303). The Pegnato and Birch study has been used for almost 40 years to discount the value of classroom teachers as qualified identifiers of gifted students. Their work has been frequently cited to support the opinion that classroom teachers are not reliable at identifying gifted students in their classrooms.

Gagné (1994) criticized the methods employed by Pegnato and Birch. “We should not compare the effectiveness and efficiency levels of a given method (e.g., method X is very effective, but not very efficient) because these two indices will move in opposite directions as we change the cut off scores” (p. 125). Gagné suggested that data from the Pegnato and Birch study be reevaluated by computing a correlation coefficient between each method and the criterion. After reanalyzing the data, Gagné found that “teachers do not come out worse than most other sources of information, including some subgroups of the Otis” (p. 126).

More recent studies have also indicated that teachers are not the poor identifiers of gifted students that Pegnato and Birch (1959) indicated. Hoge and Cudmore (1986) suggested there is very little empirical foundation for the negative evaluation so often associated with teacher judgment measures. Rohrer (1995) found that while teachers’ preconceived notions of giftedness could preclude children with certain personality traits from consideration for gifted programs, overall, “teachers were able to recognize intellectual potential in students who were not the stereotypical White, fit, well-adjusted, high-achieving students” (p. 279).

Renzulli and his colleagues (Renzulli et al., 1976) developed the Scales for Rating the Behavioral Characteristics of Superior Students for use by classroom teachers to nominate students. The Scales are among the most popular instruments of identification used today for nominating students for gifted programs. However, Renzulli cautioned that teachers should be trained before using the rating scales. One area of concern in identifying students for gifted programs is gender bias. Gagné (1993) reported that males were more often thought to be more able in areas requiring physical or technical skill and females were perceived as performing better in the areas of artistic talent and socioaffective domains. Teachers spend more time interacting with male students in verbal and nonverbal ways (Mann, 1994; Oliveres & Rosenthal, 1992; Sadker & Sadker, 1993). Teachers face male students when talking (Sadker & Sadker, 1995) and give more detailed instructions to male students (Oliveres & Rosenthal, 1992). Not only do males received more attention, but the quality of this attention is higher than that received by females. Perhaps this additional attention translates into males receiving special “nomination” attention as well.

Bernard (1979) found that “irrespective of the sex of teacher or student, or course of study, students who are perceived as masculine in role orientation are likely to be evaluated more highly than students who are not” (p. 562). Dusek and Joseph (1983) also found that “teachers were more likely to expect high achieving students, regardless of gender, to be masculine or androgynous, and low achieving students, regardless of gender, to be feminine or undifferentiated” (p. 338).


We developed 12 student profiles based on Tannenbaum’s (1997) concept of producing and non-producing gifted students (see Figure 1). For example, we created four profiles that featured some aspect of reading. Two of the profiles depicted students who were avid readers, and two of theprofiles depicted students who were not interested in reading. Of each of these pairs, one featured a student who was engaged in classwork (producer), and one featured a student who did not complete lasswork (non-producer). In total, twelve different profiles were created. We created an identical set of 12 profiles in which only the gender of the student’s name was changed. While one profile featured Brenda, an identical one featured Brian. Anglo names were used to avoid adding an additional selection criteria of ethnicity. The 12 profiles were given to a panel of three judges. Each judge correctly identified which of the 12 categories in Figure 1 matched the profiles.


We also created three additional profiles. One featured an introverted, quiet, absentminded student. Another involved a “cocky,” dominant student who put down others. The final profile included a language arts oriented, avid reader with a large vocabulary.

The profiles were organized into two sets of 15. Each set contained a mixture of males and females who depicted each of the 12 categories shown in Figure 1 plus the 3 additional personalities. Ninety-two educators, classroom teachers (n=58) and gifted and talented specialists (n=34), who were attending a week-long, regional gifted and talented conference in the Northwest evaluated a set of 15 profiles. The educators were instructed to “Make recommendations of students that should be included in a gifted and talented program.” A 4-point Likert scale with 1=”Definitely NOT include,” 2=”NOT include with reservations,” 3=”Include with reservations,” and 4=”Definitely include” was used for each student profile.


Gender differences were found with two profiles. Gifted and talented specialists and classroom teachers were similar in rating producing avid readers higher than non-producing readers. However, non-producing males who were not interested in reading were rated higher than similar females by classroom teachers. Introverted, absent-minded females were nominated with less confidence than males with similar nonproductive characteristics.

Math problem-solving producers were more likely to be nominated than similar non-producers. Gifted and talented specialists were likely to nominate producing and non-producing math problem-solvers than classroom teachers were. Non-producers who exhibited superior mental computation skills earned higher ratings than producers who used standard computation methods. Gifted and talented specialists valued mental computations more than classroom teachers.

The esoteric nature of students’ knowledge appeared to influence educators’ selections. Non-producers who were interested in airplane design and flying were more likely to be nominated than producing students who were interested in dinosaurs, a topic of interest to most elementary students. The nature of the student interest appeared to influence classroom teachers more than it influenced gifted and talented specialists.


It appears that some gender stereotypes still exist when identifying students for gifted programs. Boys were excused for being disorganized and introverted. Non-producing avid readers who were male also received higher ratings than similar females. The gender stereotype of females “liking reading” and boys “not liking reading” seemed to carry over to identification. It may be that when students fail to match the gender stereotype, their unexpected behavior draws attention to them. In some cases, this may increase the likelihood of their being nominated for gifted and talented programs. Tannenbaum (1986) described gifted traits as being both scarce and valued. Based on this preliminary study, it may be that some students are nominated for a program because they do not “fit the mold,” rather than for the gifted behaviors that they exhibit. This finding is supported with the higher rating received by the nonproductive student with an esoteric interest over the producing student with a common interest.

Overall, students who chose not to engage in classroom assignments were rated lower than students of a similar profile who did engage in classroom assignments. Such students may be classified as underachievers. These underachievers end up being under-identified as well. Despite demonstrating productivity related to personal interests, these students were seldom recommended. This is unfortunate, since involvement in gifted and talented programs may provide the intellectual stimulation many of these students seek through personal interests. Baum, Renzulli, and Hébert (1995) found that students who had the opportunity to explore advanced projects related to personal interests often reversed their underachievement pattern.

Gifted and talented specialists tended to rate students higher than classroom teachers. It may be that they concentrated more on the positive aspects of the student profiles, rather than the negative ones. Programs for the gifted often concentrate on student strengths and interests and the gifted and talented coordinators may have been sensitive to these features of the profiles. Classroom teachers are often cast in a diagnose and remediate role with students. Under such expectations, they may be more sensitive to student weaknesses. Classroom teachers who are asked to identify gifted and talented students should be encouraged to identify characteristics that indicate giftedness, rather than look for reasons why a child is not gifted.

This study indicates that teachers need better training to help them recognize the stereotypical beliefs they hold about gifted and talented students. Such training will go a long way toward improving referrals for gifted and talented programs.

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