Skip to main content

Identifying Gifted Students: Addressing the Lack of Diversity in Gifted Education

February 11, 2021

US schools continue to grow in diversity, yet gifted education programs fail to fully reflect that multiplicity. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students are significantly underrepresented in gifted programs. English language learners and students with disabilities also participate in gifted programs at a rate well below the percentage of gifted students in those cohorts.

Lack of Diversity in Gifted Education

Approximately 6 percent of public school students are enrolled in gifted and talented programs, but many student populations are underrepresented, according to the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). Based on data from the US Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, the NAGC estimates:

  • Students from African American families are underrepresented by 43 percent.
  • Students from Latinx families are underrepresented by 30 percent.
  • Students from Native American families are underrepresented by 13 percent.
  • Students with disabilities and those who are still learning English are underrepresented by 75 percent.

Examining how schools typically operate gifted education programs brings the lack of diversity in gifted education into focus.

Gifted Programs: The Basics

Before a school can begin identifying gifted students, it has to establish its definition of “gifted.” Such definitions vary from one school district to the next. Although states and school districts are not obligated to adopt the US Department of Education’s definition, it is the basis for many local standards for gifted students:

Students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.

Identifying Gifted Students

In the United States, district administrators generally determine the policies and procedures for identifying gifted students. A typical process involves a nomination or identification phase, a screening or selection phase, and a placement phase, for example.

There is no standardized method for identifying gifted students, but experts stress the importance of utilizing both objective and subjective assessments. Objective identification instruments include intelligence and achievement tests, as well as cumulative academic performance; examples of subjective assessments include teacher observations and student portfolios. Collecting information about students using multiple types of assessments provides a more nuanced portrait of students’ performance and potential.

Types of Gifted Programs

Schools and districts can serve gifted students through multiple types of programs and practices:

  • Accommodation in a regular classroom. Students who have been identified as gifted can receive differentiated curriculum and instruction.
  • Full-time grouping with students of advanced abilities. This could include instruction at a magnet school or a school for performing arts.
  • Part-time assignment to special classes. This might include advanced classes or pullout programs that take gifted students out of class for a designated period each week so that they can receive enriched instruction with other gifted students.
  • Accelerated instruction. Options in this category include early entrance to a grade level, grade skipping, and dual-credit courses. An example of a dual credit course is one that allows high school students to enroll in a college-level course and receive credit for both college and high school.

The Problem of Underrepresentation

A report from the Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute at Purdue University estimates that as many as half of gifted students, some 3.6 million children, may be missing out on gifted education. Some gifted students go unidentified because they attend a school that doesn’t have gifted education processes in place. Many others, however, are simply overlooked. Gifted students who are Black or Hispanic/Latinx are among the student populations most significantly underidentified.

The Effects of Underrepresentation

Gifted programs foster higher-level thinking, allow for greater expression, and provide a variety of learning experiences to challenge students. When gifted students from marginalized groups are not identified as gifted, they miss out on those opportunities.

Early identification of giftedness improves the likelihood that a student will fully develop their talent. When individuals are denied equal opportunity to receive an education that maximizes their potential, they lose opportunities for development that could open educational and professional doors and ultimately make them more successful as adults.

Gifted students who do not receive learning opportunities as a result of bias experience a form of discrimination, which can have untold negative effects. For example, discrimination is linked to higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, and it can have a negative impact on a student’s relationships and overall health.

Strategies for Promoting Equity in Gifted Education

Educators who want to promote equity in gifted education can focus on several approaches:

  • Using multiple assessment tools. Giftedness can be specific to certain interests or learning categories, and diverse students have different aptitudes and learning styles. Educators are more likely to recognize different types of exceptional aptitudes if they utilize a combination of objective and subjective assessments.
  • Providing teacher training. Studies have shown that educators are far more likely to identify the exceptional gifts and talents of children who are white or Asian. Staff education in the areas of cultural competency and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) can help teachers recognize their own biases.
  • Diversifying teaching staff. Teachers who come from different backgrounds contribute to a broader recognition and understanding of the abilities of diverse student populations.

Students from marginalized groups face challenges that other students do not. If education leaders do not take steps to mitigate differences in opportunity, schools will continue to overlook gifted students from marginalized groups.

Promoting Equity in All Aspects of Education

Educators interested in shaping education policy and creating more inclusive learning environments should explore the opportunities made available through American University’s online EdD in Education Policy and Leadership.

With a focus on building equitable learning environments, the curriculum emphasizes systems change, personal leadership, social justice and anti-racism, and policy and research. The doctoral degree program provides current and future teachers and education leaders with the tools they need to transform the education system to benefit all learners.