The “Gifted Identification Trap”

IMG_3252As a former gifted teacher and gifted program coordinator, I recognize the importance of identifying gifted and high-ability students for accelerated and/or enriched classes to meet learning needs. Nevertheless, educators in districts fortunate enough to have gifted programming must not imprison themselves and their students in the “Gifted Identification Trap.” This trap is sprung when high level differentiation and knowledge of gifted pedagogy is undervalued for grade level classrooms because identified students leave the classroom for accelerated/gifted instruction.

For example, let’s take the case of a fourth grade classroom teacher—we’ll call her “Ms. Solo.” As Ms. Solo begins the school year, she glances at her class list with highlighted names of five students identified for the “gifted program.” At 9:57 a.m. she chirps, “Time to switch classes for math!” Five students scoop up their newly polished pencil cases and leave to meet with the “gifted teacher.” Now, Ms. Solo is free to focus on meeting the needs of the rest of the students.

…that is, if she can dislodge herself and the students seated in front of her from the tentacles of the “Gifted Identification Trap.”

Let’s meet some of the rest of the students:

  • Melinda just missed the gifted program by a point on her testing. Although they may have appealed, her parents decided not to do so.
  • Jimmy has lived in the United States for three years after arriving from Mexico. At the time of his arrival, he knew no English and Spanish is spoken at home. He has already obtained average scores on his reading tests, and his math performance is above-average. He has a passion for writing stories.
  • Tina is an African American student with a single parent who is a manager at a local restaurant franchise. Tina scores above average in mathematics and loves to write her own math problems. She taught her third grade classmates to design and build model cities out of cardboard.
  • Tom can tell the class anything about birds. He has read every bird book in the library and has memorized 70 bird calls. He loves to solve equations and does so at a sixth grade level. However, he is slow at solving fact problems and his inconsistent scores did not place him in the gifted program.

Given the opportunity, could Melinda, Jimmy, Tina, and Tom also thrive in accelerated or enriched classes? If grade level instruction best meets their current needs, what differentiation support would be appropriate?

As this scenario suggests, “giftedness” includes so many facets and definitions that establishing equitable, defensible measures to identify them creates a complex and sometimes sticky web. In fact, despite years of research and debates about the best ways to identify gifted students, too many children with high potential are “missed.” A persisting “Excellence Gap,”–a difference in high level academic achievement between subgroups, such as low-income/high-income is one compelling manifestation of this reality. [1]

Fortunately, the story of Ms. Solo and her students has a happy ending because they steer clear of the “Gifted Identification Trap.” This is because administrators and teachers in Ms. Solo’s district reserve resources and energy to move beyond the “identification” protocol for developing talent and meeting learning needs. In addition to establishing an equitable identification process based on multiple measures, Ms. Solo’s district does the following:

  • Professional Development: The district requires professional development for all teachers that focuses on identifying and meeting the needs of gifted learners including those with twice special needs and those from underserved populations [2].
  • “Watch List” for Students Who Demonstrate Potential: With professional training, teachers like Ms. Solo are encouraged to look for students who exhibit gifted characteristics, achievement, and/or learning potential that may not be demonstrated through their test scores. The teachers might refer these students to the gifted program and/or put their names on a “watch list” for classroom differentiation and encouraged participation in school enrichment opportunities.
  • High Level Instruction: For students of all learning levels, teachers have resources, participate in book studies, and engage in professional development to provide instruction that builds critical thinking skills, engages students in high-level questioning, discussion, and problem-solving.
  • Enrichment Opportunities: The district provides an after school enrichment program for all students, including those in the primary grades, to interview adult “mentors” in STEM and other professional careers, participate in hands-on mathematics problem-solving and science experiences, and develop creative interests.
  • Parent Outreach: As part of its outreach, the school offers a parent coffee, evening program, and a newsletter that provides information about enrichment opportunities through libraries, museums, corporations, and the local park district. Any scholarship or transportation options are also presented to assist with practical considerations. Notification is translated as appropriate for families who do not speak English.
  • Student Growth Monitoring: The district monitors the growth of all students, including those in the gifted program, and regularly re-assesses and develops accelerated programming to insure that instruction continues to match student learning needs.

Although the story of Ms. Solo and her district is fiction, the implications are real. As we struggle to meet the needs of diverse high ability learners, we must avoid sinking into the “identification trap” quicksand. Let’s not miss any opportunity to grasp a low-hanging branch and unleash the amazing potential in all of our students.


[1] See Plucker, Jonathan A. and Peters, Scott J. Excellence Gaps in Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press (2016).

[2] The Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”) requires that training to meet the needs of gifted students is addressed in district and state plans. Title I funds may also be used to identify and serve gifted and talented students. Title IV funds also available for providing enriched opportunities for students in underrepresented subgroups. Illinois Association for Gifted Children (“IAGC”) Website,