School districts have historically relied on a referral-based process to identify students for gifted and talented programming. This means that teachers or parents nominate their students to take selected achievement and/or cognitive aptitude tests, frequently used as a screener for gifted and talented placement.
Unfortunately, relying on referrals alone results in overly homogenous gifted and talented programs that are predominantly white, middle class, and male. Research shows that referral-based identification excludes too many students from enrichment and advanced academic opportunities.
But districts are slowly starting to change their identification processes. Instead of using referrals to determine which students take the specified tests, districts have begun universally screening every child to make the identification process more equitable, especially when districts use cognitive aptitude tests for all students, not just a select subset.
A 2015 Card and Giuliano study found that a universal screening system was more effective than the traditional teacher and parent referral system in addressing the under-identification of African-American, Hispanic, female, low socioeconomic status and English learner students. The study also offered best practices for implementing a universal screening process within school districts.
Universal screening with both ability and achievement tests allows each student to highlight both their potential and their performance to help educators make more equitable program placement decisions. Achievement assessments can be heavily influenced by quality of instruction or support at home, so students coming from lower-income communities might not score as high on achievement assessments as students from higher-income areas. In contrast, ability tests measure a student’s innate reasoning ability and potential, which is much less influenced by formal schooling. When schools only refer students based on academic achievement, they are often limiting their student pool to students with the strongest academic preparation.
Across the country, we’ve seen school systems move to universal screening and create gifted and talented populations that are racially and socioeconomically representative of the district at large. Universal screening provides far more opportunities for all students to get into advanced academic programs that may not have been within reach based solely on referral programs or achievement testing.
Consider the Richardson Independent School District (RISD), which is the fifth most diverse district in Texas. With 55 campuses spread throughout small, suburban neighborhoods and across the urban metroplex, RISD serves nearly 38,000 students, with 57 percent who receive free and reduced lunch and 28 percent who are English learners with additional needs for language support and instruction. The student body is 39 percent Hispanic, 29% white and 22 percent black. RISD previously used a referral-based identification process for gifted and talented placement, but noticed a few years ago that the gifted and talented population did not represent the district’s diverse demographics.
So, RISD decided to move to a universal screening model, where they tested all second- and sixth-grade students for gifted programming using ability measures. At one campus with referral identification, only 1 percent of the second graders qualified for gifted services. Yet with ability universal screening, RISD identified 10 percent of second-grade students as eligible for gifted and talented. At one Title I school in the district, nearly 10x more students were identified using universal screening. This new process dramatically increased the identification of minority and economically disadvantaged students who may have been previously overlooked due to bias in the referral system.
The Anchorage School District also showed similar results. The school system serves approximately 43,500 students in Alaska spanning an area of nearly 2,000 square miles with students from diverse backgrounds. Sixty percent of the students are non-white, and the families of 20 percent of the student body speak a combined 110 languages. Over the past decade, the Anchorage County Schools sought to improve their means of equitably and effectively identifying students who would benefit from gifted and advanced academic programs. Despite budget restrictions, Anchorage County Schools transformed their process by adding universal screening and utilizing multiple measures to qualify students for their gifted programs.
This overhaul allowed the Anchorage School District to accurately and equitably identify students who excel among their peers and provide the appropriate opportunities for those students to continue to challenge themselves and optimize their learning experience. Now, Anchorage’s gifted programming is far more diverse, and 25 percent of students served by its Elementary Highly Gifted program, a K-6 magnet program, come from Title I schools in the district.
These school districts are just two of many examples that illustrate the significant impact universal screening with rigorous achievement and ability measures has on identifying gifted students. All students, not just those with parent and teacher advocates, deserve the opportunity to qualify for advanced academic or gifted services. As RISD and Anchorage County Schools realized, universal screening is the only sound method to ensure that all students have the chance to demonstrate their cognitive aptitude and receive the instruction that aligns with their innate potential.
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