As the population of English learners (ELs) in grades K–12 grows, so do the challenges school districts face in identifying gifted students and putting in place appropriate enrichment and acceleration opportunities for them. Often students who do not speak English as their first language are disadvantaged because parents, teachers, and standardized testing regularly fail to recognize their talents as a result of language barriers, cultural differences, and interrupted educational experiences.
Language and cultural barriers for ELs are one part of the challenge. There is a long history of inequality in gifted education, with disproportionate identification of underserved populations, including Hispanic and Black students. These student groups continue to be underrepresented compared to their counterparts, and they often have limited access to gifted education, Advanced Placement (AP), and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses.
More than 10 percent, or more than 5 million, of all public school students were ELs at last count. In twelve states—Alaska, California, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia—EL students represented more than 10 percent of the school population. Spanish is the home language for more than 75 percent of these students, with others speaking Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Russian.
While Pennsylvania is not among these states, there are certain areas that see a large influx of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students. One is where I work: the State College Area School District (SCASD). Located in central Pennsylvania, SCASD is unique because it serves communities surrounding Penn State University, which brings families from diverse cultures into our district, and is home to migrant families, including refugees, who have moved into the community.
Many districts rely on parent and teacher referrals, or base access to gifted programs solely on IQ or standardized testing, but SCASD have taken a different tack: universal screening. Pennsylvania law requires universal screening. However, because universal screening is an unfunded mandate, many districts do not prioritize it or they do not apply best practices, such as maximizing data to get a true holistic view of the child.
At SCASD, we believe the investment in universal screening is important for our school population. Universal screening enables us to provide all students with an opportunity to demonstrate their giftedness. More importantly, it is creating conversations around increasing access to gifted programs among students who may not have qualified via more conventional assessment methods. We also leverage other ways to increase equity in gifted and advanced academic programming, such as better understanding individual students, including their non-verbal skills, and considering other extenuating or masking factors.
Best practices for improving equity
If your school district is interested in ensuring that all students have equitable access to gifted programming, there are three best practices you should consider.
1. Evaluate both achievement (what a student knows at that moment in time) and ability data (readiness to learn at that moment in time) to get a complete student profile.
SCASD believes that looking only at achievement data or taking parent requests is unfair. Instead, we are among the 5.9 percent of schools nationally that use universal screening as a means for improving diversity of gifted programs. We also consider other potential masking of gifted ability to gain a better understanding of the student in order to determine whether they qualify. Though we do consider local norms in our screening process, local norms may be skewed higher, as they are in our district; however, this should not eliminate conversations around the value and importance of local norms—especially in areas with larger populations of students from marginalized populations.
In our district, a team of educators work together in identifying gifted students. While they do consider IQ, they also take a closer look at those students who do not meet Pennsylvania’s 130 IQ threshold, factoring in demonstrated and standardized achievement, including results of the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) and Measures of Academic Progress (MAP). They also take into account how students are performing in peer groups; their demonstrated abilities; early skill development; rates of acquisition and retention; other factors, such as if they are EL or have free or reduced-price lunch; and race. SCASD, along with our partner Riverside Insights, is piloting use of the CogAT Complete to see if the additional data points for verbal and non-verbal skills will help students stand out more than in the shorter CogAT screener.
2. Be inclusive of many languages within your district.
Since our school district is a cultural melting pot as a result of its proximity to Penn State, we have students and families that speak almost fifty different languages, some of which are not even recognized by the state. Having such an array of languages spoken in the schools makes universal screening using tools like CogAT imperative because they can give insights into verbal, non-verbal, and quantification skills.
In terms of testing, many researchers suggest that only non-verbal assessments are the most equitable in making gifted identification. However, my research suggests that, in our district, culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students may be missed if only relying on non-verbal assessments. Though non-verbal assessments are critical to those who may not have a full command of the English language when tested in grades three and above, the more data schools have in seeing the “full picture,” the more likely students, including CLDs, won’t be missed.
3. Expand enrichment and acceleration opportunities.
Promising students should not be held back just because they do not meet requirements for, or there is not enough funding to expand, gifted programs. In these cases, school districts should consider other ways to provide enrichment and support. This could be basic subject or grade level acceleration—one of the easiest and cheapest ways to support gifted students. This approach could leverage virtual, asynchronous, and/or in-school instruction, or include independent studies and telescope programs in which students take two grades worth of content, like sixth and seventh grade science, in the same school year. Restrictive IQ scores for gifted identification can preclude students with lower IQ scores but who have talent and skills in areas such as math.
School districts should also consider that not all gifted students look the same. We are seeing more twice-exceptional (2e) students who may be in special education programs because they are autistic or have emotional issues, but who have high IQs and excel in certain subjects. If we focus on their deficits, we are not fully meeting their needs. So having programs in place that provide individualized supports, including enrichment and accelerated learning for the subjects in which these students excel, is important for supporting the whole child, while also still supporting the child’s disability.
I will always advocate for equitable outcomes for all students, especially those who are from marginalized communities. In fact, after a review of three schools that piloted the CogAT Complete, of thirty-five students who had demographic data—including whether they were English learners, Black, Hispanic, or Multiracial—20 percent had at least one standard age score of 126 (our district screening minimum) or higher. In fact, four of these students had a score in verbal and/or quantification subtests that met that minimum, despite having non-verbal scores lower than the cut-off. By relying solely on one type of assessment or subtest, students from marginalized populations may be missed from gifted universal screening procedures.