Conflicts in the Definition and Identification of Giftedness

The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) periodically issues position papers having to do with gifted education. For a list with links to current position papers you can click here. I would like to highlight a couple of the position papers, including what I see as conflicts that can be confusing about the definition of giftedness and the identification of students.

Defining giftedness has been a controversial topic as long as I can remember. I believe that a lack of consensus in the field has often impaired progress. Different school districts adopt different definitions and different methods for identifying children who might benefit from advanced services. Misunderstandings result and parents and teachers become frustrated. This NAGC position paper feels more inclusive to me than some other definitions. For instance, the paper defines outstanding competence as “documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer)” instead of the 3% figure that used to be in vogue. The paper also states that those competencies may take place in one or more domains. Although it lists possible domains (e.g., mathematics, music, dance), it does not limit the definition to only those domains listed.

The position paper recognizes the development of ability or talent as a lifelong process. “As individuals mature through childhood to adolescence ... achievement and high levels of motivation in the domain become the primary characteristics of their giftedness.” In previous definitions, the emphasis often was placed on “potential” rather than accomplishment. We can see and recognize accomplishments. Potential is not as clear. How does one really know a person has potential if he doesn’t demonstrate it?

Educators need to adjust educational materials and methods for students who demonstrate that they can do more difficult work. I think that’s a premise that is difficult to argue.
Students who experience poverty, discrimination, cultural barriers, physical or learning disabilities, or motivational or emotional problems may be much more difficult to spot, so we need to lighten up a bit and consider more deeply if, given the right opportunities, these kids might be able to raise their levels of accomplishment.

I question whether this position paper should be rewritten to more closely align with the position paper above. In Redefining Giftedness for a New Century, I think the reader is being told that each gifted student should be provided an educational experience that matches his or her needs. In The Role of Assessments in the Identification of Gifted Students, we are told that assessments should be used that align with a program’s goals and objectives. So, should we be figuring out what modifications a particular student needs or should we only be finding and serving students who fit into a particular program that we have designed? In The Role of Assessments in the Identification of Gifted Students, it sounds like the latter is true.

This second position paper also gets into the discussion of using alternative assessments (i.e., nonverbal ability tests) for students who are under-represented in gifted programs. Nonverbal ability tests have the potential to identify students who can solve unique problems. One cannot automatically come to the conclusion that a student who does well on these tests will be capable of handling the advanced language arts or math program that a school has created. If these types of tests are used, the school must carefully examine what types of programs need to be created that will be meaningful.

Under best practices for using assessments for gifted identification, the position paper states: “the choice of assessment tools must match the definition of giftedness that has been determined by the state, district, or school.” Here we’re coming back to the muddled conception of giftedness again. As a family moves across the country, parents may find that their children were “gifted” in one state or city, but not in another. No wonder there is such confusion.

So we need to figure out which comes first—the horse or the cart. Should we be figuring out which students have very strong abilities and then design programs around those abilities or should we be designing programs to match our state, district, or school definition of giftedness and then trying to find students who would be a good match for those programs?

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