There Needs to Be a National Definition for Gifted

by Todd Stanley

Gifted finds itself in a precarious situation that I am always reminded of when working with districts that are out of state. The situation is this; there isn’t a whole lot of consistency with what gifted is. 

Different states have different definitions of it.

Here is the example of what Arizona defines gifted as being:

“Gifted child means a child who is of lawful school age, who due to superior intellect or advanced learning ability, or both, is not afforded an opportunity for otherwise attainable progress and development in regular classroom instruction and who needs special instruction or special ancillary services, or both, to achieve at levels commensurate with the child’s intellect and ability.”

 Vermont however defines it like this:

“Gifted and talented children means children identified by professionally qualified persons who, when compared to others of their age, experience, and environment, exhibit capability of high performance in intellectual, creative or artistic areas, possess an unusual capacity for leadership or excel in specific academic fields.”

You can see that just between the two of these, Arizona only sees intellect and learning ability, while Mississippi also includes creative and artistic ability. Both though talk about ability.

Georgia on the other hand includes these but also adds students who exhibit an exceptionally high degree of motivation:

“Gifted Student – a student who demonstrates a high degree of intellectual and/or creative ability(ies), exhibits an exceptionally high degree of motivation, and/or excels in specific academic fields, and who needs special instruction and/or special ancillary services to achieve at levels commensurate with his or her abilities.”

That means a highly motivated student in Vermont might not be identified while one in Georgia would.

Iowa adds this to the list:

“Leadership ability.”

They are not limited to only academic ability but also the high performance of 21st century skills. Massachusetts and South Dakota do not even bother to define giftedness. One thing that almost all of them agree on however is this definition from the state of Nebraska:

“Learner with high ability means a student who gives evidence of high performance capability in such areas as intellectual, creative, or artistic capacity or in specific academic fields and who requires accelerated or differentiated curriculum programs in order to develop those capabilities fully.”

It is the second part of this definition, “who required accelerated and differentiated curriculum programs in order to develop those capabilities”, that most definitions also contain. They have all come to the consensus that a regular education program is not going to cut it for these students. They need specialized instruction. And yet, even though they agree on this, it is not necessarily happening. 

My state of Ohio defines gifted as:

“… one who “performs or shows potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared to others of their age, experience, or environment.”

This is in stark contrast to special education where students must be served by federal law. It has a federal definition and is protected under the IDEA, or Individual Disabilities Education Act. This also comes with a set of enforceable laws that requires a school to provide an adequate education in a least restrictive environment. If a district is not offering services to special education students, they may find themselves in legal trouble. 

Gifted education just doesn’t have any consistency, even within a state. One district may offer specialized classes for their gifted population while the one right next to it does not. Budgets vary wildly while some states receive millions of dollars, others receive none. 

Even the identification of students can be inconsistent. Some states allow for local norms while others do not. Local norms mean that instead of comparing students to other students from across the country, students are compared with students in their district. In other words, a common acceptance of gifted students are those children who perform in the top 5% of a population.

A nationally normed test is taking the top 5% of every child who took the test in the country. Local norms look at the top 5% of every child who took the test in the district. This can make a difference because there might be no one in the district who qualifies in the top 5% of the nation. Does that mean there are not students who might benefit from specialized services? Absolutely not. If you took the top 5% of the students in that district and gave them challenging coursework, they would most likely thrive in that environment. But in the state of Ohio, we are not allowed to use local norms. 

We do have a national advocacy program, the NAGC, who has given their own definition of gifted:

NAGC’s definition of giftedness

Students with gifts and talents perform – or have the capability to perform – at higher levels compared to others of the same age, experience, and environment in one or more domains. They require modification(s) to their educational experience(s) to learn and realize their potential.

Students with gifts and talents:

• Come from all racial, ethnic, and cultural populations, as well as all economic strata.

• Require sufficient access to appropriate learning opportunities to realize their potential.

• Can have learning and processing disorders that require specialized intervention and accommodation.

• Need support and guidance to develop socially and emotionally as well as in their areas of talent. Require varied services based on their changing needs.

I am certainly not a proponent for a one size fits all education nor do services have to be the exact same from district to district. All I am asking for is a little consistency with how we define gifted students, how we identify gifted students, and if we serve them. Without a federal definition backed by a federal law, there will never be consistent services for gifted students.

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