I often think of “gifted” as the dirtiest word in education. I won’t elaborate here on negative effects of labeling and problematic current practices. You likely already know those arguments and will remind me of them in the comments, I am sure.
Today I want to dive into research-based, best practices for identifying students for Highly Capable Program Services. These are put in action in the Quincy School District, where I teach.
Quincy is a small farm town, almost the geographic center of Washington State. We are isolated from large urban centers, over 60% of our students are learning English, over 90% are students of color, and over 80% come from low income households.
Traditional methods of identifying students for Highly Capable Program Services do not capture the excellence within my students. Over the last several years, we have overhauled our policies in effort to do better.
Five years ago, only three students were identified as highly capable in my entire building of 450 students. They were all middle class, white girls. Now my school includes 25 students identified for Highly Capable Services. Of those, 60% are students of color, 52% are from low income backgrounds, and 32% are learning English. While none are enrolled in special education, three have accommodations through 504 Plans. One student is in foster care.
That means we now recognize our students’ strengths more clearly so we can build on their potential. We’ve come a long ways, but we are a still work in progress. I’ll share those challenges here, too.
Let’s dig in.
Universal Screening & Referrals for Service
In Quincy we effectively do two types of universal screening. The first is a cognitive assessment, the CogAT 7 Screening Form. This is administered to all second graders in the district. We follow it up with the post-screener for any who surpass the 80th percentile, and sometimes others on a case by case basis. We also break down scores by strand and may extend the assessment in only one or two strands as needed.
We also look for standouts in district and state assessment data. After each testing cycle, enrichment specialists mine this data using school norms, as well as peer-norms for students learning English or from low income backgrounds.
Finally, we also accept direct referrals by parents, teachers, community members, peers, or even students themselves. Once we complete the universal screening, and the referral window closes for the year, we begin to collect evidence for identification.
Multiple Pathways to Identification
But first, a warning. Beware of “multiple measures”. It is WA State law to use multiple measures for identification of highly capable students. This policy was enacted to enable multiple entry points to Highly Capable Program Services. It was not intended to create consecutive hurdles for students to overcome.
Years ago in Quincy, we gathered every available data piece for every student referred for services. We quickly realized we had overburdened ourselves, as different evidence was relevant to different students.
Today, we use various measures as different “pathways” for students to demonstrate their potential. Some students’ data is so objectively clear that they “automatically qualify”. Other students become case studies, and we spend a bit more time and conversation in determining the services they need.
When students automatically qualify, they are not considered “more highly capable” than other students. It is only that their data so objectively demonstrates their potential that we don’t need to spend time in discussion about their case.
Students automatically qualify by attaining at least two of the following criteria:
- Performance Assessments - 95th percentile or above on any district or state assessment
- Cognitive Assessments - 95th percentile or above on any strand of the CogAT 7 assessment
- Grades - because grading criteria can vary by teacher, we require two full years of top grades in one or more subject areas to be considered for automatic qualification
- Renzulli Scales - 95% on one or more rating scales.
The criteria from the automatic qualifier list can continue to support a case study, in addition to the following menu of options:
- Consistent performance in the top 5% of school or peer-normed group (for students learning English or from low income backgrounds) on any district or state assessment
- Anecdotal Evidence from Parents - “Things My Child Likes to Do” Scales from Schoolwide Enrichment Model book
- Ratings Scales for Culturally, Economically, and Linguistically Diverse Students (download them for free!)
- Other assessments, such as Torrance Creativity Test, WISC, ELPA, and WAKids
- Portfolio of Exemplary Student Work
Our case studies do not abide by cut scores or weighted evidence. We don’t count data as points accumulating toward a magic score. Instead, we collect this evidence to create a more holistic story of a child’s ability. Then we bring it to a multidisciplinary team for discussion.
Multidisciplinary Team Meeting: A Tiered Approach to Identification and Placement
Every year in March, a multidisciplinary team (MDT) of district staff meet to identify and place students in Highly Capable Program Services for the upcoming school year. At the beginning of the meeting, we quickly scan a spreadsheet to review the “automatic qualifiers,” as described above. Then we settle in for one of the most beautiful and challenging conversations I participate in all year--the case study discussions.
Julian's Case Study:
Sometimes case studies are quick. This year, I referred a student, let’s call him Julian. He is learning English and diagnosed with ADHD. His teacher rated him at 95% on the Renzulli Scale for Math, although none of his assessments were in range of automatically qualifying. Julian's math grades have dramatically improved to receive top scores this year. When we disaggregate our district assessment data to look at only students learning English, his growth vastly outpaces his peers, and his most recent score was 13 percentile points higher than his next closest peer. A quick review of that data brought a resounding, yes! The committee agreed that Julian would thrive in an advanced learning environment, and he will begin receiving Highly Capable Program Services next year.
Rosa's Case Study:
Other cases are messy. The MDT spent nearly twenty minutes discussing another student of mine this spring. Let’s call her Rosa. She was referred last fall after unusual, creative, and humorous wonderments during her reading FLUENCY assessment. (I mean, come on… humorous wonderments, in a fluency assessment?)
Rosa is diagnosed with two social-emotional disorders. Her grades are low, and part of her 504 Plan is that she may not take district assessments. This fall, when I told her teacher that Rosa had been referred, she looked at me with exasperation. The teacher was already exhausted, and I couldn’t blame her. I have worked with Rosa in my advanced enrichment class for four years now. I knew she was a good fit for additional challenge, but I never really considered her to need the level of individualization that we provide in Highly Capable Program Services. However, over the course of this year, Rosa has taught me differently. By the time the committee met, I had a slew of anecdotal examples of her leadership and advanced reasoning, even within the cohort in my advanced enrichment class.
Research shows that one of the most underrepresented populations in gifted education is twice-exceptional (2E) students. These students’ development is so asynchronous that they are incredibly advanced in some areas while having disabilities in other areas. One of the reasons they are most at risk is that their dual exceptionalities mask each other. Their areas of strength can bring up their areas of struggle just enough that they go unnoticed. Or, in this case, the social-emotional challenges that Rosa faces inhibit her performance, so her incredible potential doesn’t shine on paper.
Over the course of our long discussion, the team passionately argued both reasons for and against Rosa's need for Highly Capable Program Services. Several times we fell silent, at an impasse. I admit, I was fighting especially hard for her--she is moving to a new school next year. I am afraid that the transition will be difficult for her, and she will fall through the cracks.
As we struggled, one of the principals eventually asked the question that went to the heart of our decision. “So you’re saying, even though her grades are exceptionally low, when she gets to high school you wouldn’t hesitate placing her in the most advanced classes, for example?”
My response brought final clarity to that divided room. “Yes. In the four years I have worked with Rosa in advanced classes, I have never seen her struggle. She has been at or above the level of her peers in every single unit of study. My class isn’t graded, but she clearly thrives in a challenging environment. I worry that if we don’t identify her need for services, she won't have the opportunity to participate in them.” That was all the committee needed to hear. Rosa's placement was confirmed.
Four Tiers of Placement
Identification for Highly Capable Program Services is not a binary choice in Quincy. We have three different enrichment service levels, translating into four different placements. Through the MDT, we do our best to determine the appropriate level of service for each child who has been referred to us. While the state only requires identification for Highly Capable Program Services, this method holds us accountable to provide appropriate levels of challenge to all students.
These are the four types of placement we identify:
Highly Capable Services
“Students who perform or show potential for performing at significantly advanced academic levels when compared with others of their age, experiences, or environments. Outstanding abilities are seen within students' general intellectual aptitudes, specific academic abilities, and/or creative productivities within a specific domain. These students are present not only in the general populace, but within all protected classes” - WAC 392-170-035
Conditionally Placed in Highly Capable Services
If a case study presents insufficient data to make a confident decision, or if a student’s data is very near the level of qualification, they may be conditionally placed in Highly Capable Program Services. This means they would participate in all Highly Capable Program Services the following year. We watch to see how they respond and review their data again at the end of that year to determine a long term placement.
Tier II Enrichment Services
These students consistently demonstrate above average performance. These students benefit from extended enrichment and differentiation in small group settings, but may not need the same level of individualization as students placed in Highly Capable Program Services.
Tier I Enrichment Services
These students are appropriately challenged by grade level content in the general education classroom. They will participate in exploratory enrichment opportunities throughout the school year.
Taking Bites out of an Elephant
The changes we've made have been significant, but we’re still little past halfway to equal representation for our English learners, students from low income backgrounds, and students of color. We're far from it for our twice exceptional students. Often we talk about this work as trying to eat an elephant. No matter how big it is, we can only eat one bite at a time. And so we press on.
These are some of the challenges we’re still working to address:
- Student Name Bias: Next year, we'll be identifying students by their identification numbers all the way through this process.
- Criteria for automatic qualification: We’re in the middle of a conversation right now about including peer and school norms as criteria for automatic qualification, and/or removing grades from the automatic qualifiers list. The heart of this question is if one or both of these data are subjective enough to warrant conversation, or if they are objective enough that we don’t need it.
- Representation of students learning English. Using ELPA growth data to identify advanced potential in students learning English is one of the best practices we have yet to implement in Quincy. Studies have shown that above average language acquisition rates are strongly correlated to advanced cognitive potential.
- Representation of twice exceptional (2E) students. While both of my examples here happened to be twice-exceptional, these cases remain too rare. The WISC-5 assessment is commonly used to identify students' need for special education services. It can also be analyzed through the lens of their strengths, even to assess students specifically for Highly Capable Program Services. The WISC’s spatial, pattern recognition, verbal comprehension, and abstract conceptualization measures all correspond to advanced ability to solve problems creatively. (See this article) The current shortage of school psychologists means we have not been able to make use of this assessment or its data.
Back to that Dirty Word...
You’re probably thinking, “Camille. You started off by telling us that gifted is the dirtiest word in education, and then you spent the rest of this article explaining the process of putting this label on students.” You're right. It is an unfortunate dichotomy. In the real world, labels equal numbers. Those numbers justify funding and drive program development. This label, like any other, puts a name to a need. Around the state, I’ve heard people say, “we don’t need (insert advanced programs, dual credit, AP, etc) in this school. We don’t have any highly capable students here”. I cringe every time I hear that, thinking, “Yes, you do. You just don’t recognize them yet.”
To help decrease the effects of this label I make two critical talk moves when speaking about Quincy’s Highly Capable Program. First, I label the services, not the student. I try very hard to never say that a student is highly capable, and I never, ever, use the term gifted with parents. This same practice follows to our program paperwork as well. For example, Juan qualifies for Highly Capable Program Services, rather than, Juan is highly capable.
I also constantly remind stakeholders that in Quincy, we have a no barrier entry policy to our enrichment programs and advanced courses. That means identification doesn’t really change much, and that is a good thing! For us, identification is a paper trail. It holds us accountable, and it gives parents a means to advocate for their child. By the time students are formally identified, they have almost always been participating in our program opportunities for some time.
Gifted is a dirty word, but the concept behind it is clean. Gifted education advocates call us to remove limits on learning. Urge us to prepare well our next generation of leaders. We have to pick our battles, and I choose to struggle for gifted education, too. I believe in these ideals, because I recognize the potential in my students, and I've seen them thrive when given the chance.
We need to support excellence.
Excellence that is accessible to all.
Resources & Supporting Research
- National Association of Gifted Children Programming Standards for Identification
- Washington Academic Code for Identification of Highly Capable Students
- Gifted: The Dirtiest Word in Education
- Schoolwide Enrichment Model, Chapter 4: Identifying Students for SEM Programs
- Teacher Rating Scales for High Potential Culturally, Linguistically, or Economically Diverse Students
- Renzulli Scales for Rating the Behavioral Characteristics of Superior Students
- Young Scholars: A Talent Development Model for Finding & Nurturing Potential in Underserved Populations
- National Association of Gifted Children Recommendations for Identification
- Twice-Exceptional Students: Who are they and what do they need?
- Effective Practices for Identifying and Serving Gifted English Learners
- Cultural Competency
- English Language Learners
- Highly Capable