How Schools Decide a Kid Is Gifted


You're probably aware that schools offer special classes or other services for kids that are identified as intellectually "gifted." They're required to do so by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Students identified as gifted are entitled to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that gives them special programs or instruction.

But how do schools go about identifying whom to test and who needs gifted program services? 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 school districts have developed a systematic way to screen students for such programs.

Federal law does not mandate how school districts identify gifted children, and there is no universal agreement as to what constitutes intelligence or "giftedness." Still, many school 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 schools 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 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.

Gifted Differences

Gifted children are often more different from one another than they are from many of their average-ability peers.

  • Some are highly excitable and outgoing, while others are quiet and introspective.
  • 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.

Identification Criteria

For this reason, most school districts use a multifaceted approach to identification, basing the selection of children on a variety of screening methods.

Some 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 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.

Criteria can include observing the child in the classroom, gathering input from past teachers, reviewing grades and test scores, examination of sample schoolwork and comparison of the student to a list of characteristics that are typically associated with gifted students.

In Pennsylvania, a child with an IQ of 130 or higher must be offered gifted services, but other students can receive gifted services too. Delaware and New Jersey do not mandate gifted services for a specific IQ level.

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.

Usually, a child's score on these tests is used in conjunction with other criteria when determining eligibility. Or the group test score is used to determine whether a child is a good candidate to be tested with an individually administered IQ test.

At the Interboro School District, headquartered in Prospect Park, PA, "Students, who exhibit gifted and/or talented characteristics are recommended for further testing to see if they qualify for gifted services," says Joyce Ferguson, who teaches the district's middle school gifted seminar. She says recommendations can come from teachers, parents or guardians, and administrators.

"Early identification is important and those students who are recommended go through the district's screening process, which includes a standardized IQ and Achievement Test," she says. "For those students who are within close proximity of the state guidelines, the evaluation team considers recommendations and academic performance in the classroom to determine participation in the gifted program."

For More Info

See how the Delaware Valley's
three states define gifted students:
New Jersey

Working Together

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. Such children 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 your child's teacher.

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're in a good position to truly understand your child's unique gifts, interests, temperament, 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 — 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 decide 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.

Maybe the teacher will consider taking a new look at your child in light of the extra information you have given her.
Stay focused on working together as a team to come up with ideas and solutions that will work for your child.

David Palmer, PhD, is a California educational psychol­ogist. His book Parents’ Guide to IQ Testing and Gifted Education: All You Need to Know to Make the Right Decisions for Your Child (Parent Guide Books, ($16) is available online at


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