The Challenge of Identifying Gifted Children from Poverty

by Todd Stanley

There is a big ol’ elephant in the room in education, one that it so painfully obvious it nearly takes up the entire space, and yet one we don’t acknowledge very much. That elephant is the correlation between socio-economic status and test scores. If you were to look at the highest performing districts on standardized tests in your state, what you will most likely find is that those wealthier districts are going to be near the top, while the poorest districts are the ones at the bottom. There are a few outliers here or there, but for the most part the ranking of achievement scores very much mirrors the ranking of affluent schools.

This carries over into gifted identification as well. In a perfect world, the gifted program would be a mirror for the district distribution of wealth. If 20% of the student population is considered to be economically disadvantaged, 20% of your identified gifted should reflect this as well. However, there always seems to be an over-identification of white and Asian students, and an under-identification of Black and Latino students. Why is this? Why does gifted not identify kids who are simply gifted, no matter what their economic background?

There are three major factors that cause this:

  • The entry point
  • The outside learning opportunities
  • The language of the test

The entry point is how does a student even get the chance to be identified as gifted? Some districts conduct whole grade screening which means every student in a particular grade is going to be testing. There are others though that have an entry point students must go through to even be considered for testing. Some of these entry points might be a teacher recommendation or a parent request. The problem with these particular entry points is that there is an advocate other than the child herself.

If the entry point has to be a parent request, the parent has to be knowledgeable of the process as well as even being aware of it. That means they need to be fairly involved in the educational system. Those parents who go to parent/teacher conferences, are a member of the PTO, or volunteer at the school will have a better chance to know about this identification and to get that for their child. Parents who may not be as involved in the school either because they are working night shifts or had a poor experience with the schools when they were younger and thus do not trust the institution, their child does not stand as good a chance to have a parent request testing.

If the entry point is a teacher recommendation, the issue becomes there is very little training for your regular education teacher in regard to gifted. Because of this, many teachers think that the gifted kid is the one who gets his work done, volunteers to speak in class, behaves in class, and gets good grades. This is not the gifted kid, this is the compliant kid. Now some gifted students might be compliant and thus do get the chance to be tested, but for that kid who is not, the teacher is going to allow these issues to mask the giftedness of the child.

The second factor is the outside learning experiences afforded to some children but not others. There is a lot more that factors into a child’s education than schooling. Taking a child to the art museum, the zoo, the science center, a concert or play, family game night, art or music classes, the list goes on and on. If student A comes from a household with a lot of these opportunities but is compared with student B who has limited resources, it is literally like comparing apples to oranges in the identification process. Student A has an advantage from the education he has received by doing these outside activities that the school cannot possibly help student B catch up to. That means when both of those students sit down to take the test, there are staggered starting lines. Student A is beginning the race 100 yards from the finish line in a 200 yard race. Student B might be starting 250 yards back. How can student B possibly hope to catch student A unless they are so incredibly fast and student B is also slow, but student A does not even have to run that hard because it is an unfair race and are far more likely to be identified.

The third factor are the tests themselves. These are usually either content-based or cognitive, but there is inherent bias with these tests because there are assumptions about what a gifted child should know. Not only that, the language the test is written in can play a huge factor. There are registers of language that various economic classes use. In the middle class, the formal register of language is used which is the standard sentence structure and using specific word choice. Those who are from poverty typically use the casual register. This is language between friends where the word choice is very general. A lot of times this register is dependent on nonverbal assists. How can a student who primarily uses this casual register going to be able to successfully take a test written in the formal? There will not be those nonverbal assists, so they are at a disadvantage. These tests are written by middle class participants using the formal language.

I’ll give you an example. When I used to work with rural schools, we were analyzing a test. The question was “What is your favorite season and explain why?” The student had answered “Hunting season”, and then had gone on with much detail about why he enjoyed hunting season so much. According to the assessment rubric, this student was to receive 0 points for this response because he did not identify a season of fall, spring, winter, or summer. In my opinion, this student was just answering the question within the environment that he knew. Hunting was very big in this district, to the point that when deer season began, the school actually closed down for three days because no one was going to be there anyway. It was very much a part of their environment but because the language is different they are being penalized.

These three factors greatly inhibit the ability of children from poverty to properly be identified as gifted. As a result, much of the gifted programming consists of white, middle-class students. What we need to be doing as educators is removing some of these barriers and trying to level the playing field. There is no way we are going to be able to make it completely even, but are there things we could be doing to allow a child to show what they are capable of free of any roadblocks or obstacles.

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