Welcome to Part 6 of my blog series. So far, we’ve covered how a large school district uses universal screening, standardized testing, teacher referrals, and report card grades to identify students for gifted services and decide which of these students are admitted to the district’s prestigious gifted school.
The reason I continue to write these posts is to point out the racial and socioeconomic disparities at the gifted school—a problem that the district has not fully addressed—and offer recommendations to fix the problem. If the district truly put all students first, sought growth, and was open to change, by now its leaders would have owned up to the Equity Emphasis of their strategic plan’s third goal: “Identify and address inequities in learning opportunities for students by investigating and implementing best practices and seeking innovative solutions.”
The racial and socioeconomic inequities at the school, illustrated in the table below, go back much further than the last two school years.
What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?
The first section under Part II: Program Goals and Objectives in the district’s Local Plan for the Education of the Gifted 2020-2025 (i.e., the 5-year plan) is Identification. One of the many activities described in this section is
Seek feedback to refine and continue the student interview component of the online application using research-based questions for all intellectual gifted [sic] program applicants to amplify student voice.
In the 5-year plan, “Individual interview” is among the criteria for identifying intellectually gifted students. In addition, “Student Responses to Interview Questions” is a component used to decide whether or not a student is allowed to attend the gifted school.
While I was writing Promoting Privilege: Selecting Students for Public Gifted School during the 2020-2021 school year, Gifted Resource Teachers (GRTs) at over 50 elementary schools across the district were conducting individual interviews with students in grades 1-5. This meant that elementary students—the bulk of whom were first and fifth graders—whose parents or guardians applied for gifted services on behalf of their children were asked a series of scripted questions.
The GRTs documented each student’s responses for later review by the district’s gifted identification and placement committee. The gifted school selection committee also used the interview documents as part of their “holistic evaluation” (as the 5-year plan calls it) of children who applied for admission to the school. Please refer to the table above for the results of these holistic evaluations.
Thankfully, the powers that be did “seek feedback to refine… the student interview component” and recognized the folly of asking every first grader with a gifted application the following questions. During the 2021-2022 school year, only students in grades 5-12 were interviewed with these questions:
Describe what you see are your talents and strengths.
Do you know the meaning of talents and strengths? Talents and strengths are things that might be easy to do or things that you are so good at doing that you consider yourself an expert. These may be things that you enjoy doing. They can be things you learn about in school, after school, at home, or with friends.
Tell me about your talents at school or at home.
How have your talents and strengths helped you to achieve?
Achieve means to be successful and becoming the best you can be at something.
Remember, strengths are things that you are good at doing; so, how have these things helped you to be successful?
How have these things helped you to learn new things?
Describe your goals for the future? [sic]
What do you think you would like to do when you grow up?
What are some things that you would like to learn more about?
What will you be an expert at doing when you are older?
Misappropriation of Prompts
In Promoting Privilege: Selecting Students for Public Gifted School, I stated that I couldn’t locate any empirical research on the effectiveness of interviews to identify gifted students. Most of the studies involving student interviews were doctoral dissertations that examined how gifted children perceived themselves or the services they were receiving (e.g., Brigandi, 2015; Buckner, 2009; Cunningham, 2003; Greene, 2001).
I was successful, however, in finding the source of the three primary interview prompts (only one is a question). They were included in an interview guide developed for college students by Thomas Hébert, an internationally recognized authority on gifted education. Hébert used the guide for a study published in 2017. He used a slightly tweaked version of the original prompts for another study in 2019. Hébert’s prompts, shown below, would become the framework of the district’s student interview component:
Describe what you see as your talents and strengths.
Describe the personality characteristics that you believe have helped you achieve.
Describe your goals for the future.
The district’s prompts are identical to Hébert’s first and third prompts. The district changed Hébert’s second prompt to a question, and “personality characteristics” was reworded to become “talents and strengths.” The district also added information under each prompt in an attempt to explain the vocabulary and clarify the prompts, but some of the explanations are questionable. For example, it could mislead a child if they were told that talents and strengths “are things that might be easy to do” or “things that you enjoy doing.”
In Part 3 of this blog series, I mentioned that Dr. Hébert was a professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Education while I was working on my Ed.D. Last year I contacted Dr. Hébert via email to confirm that he did in fact write the prompts. He did. Then I asked him this question: “What grade levels do you believe the prompts are appropriate for?” Hébert’s response was, “I think high school students would not have difficulty responding to them.”
Although Dr. Hébert is a noted scholar and researcher in the field of gifted education, the district’s assertion in its 5-year plan that the student interview component uses “research-based questions” is a bit of a stretch. But that claim is trivial compared to the district’s misappropriation of Hébert’s prompts. Apparently, the prompts are still being used with students in grades 5-8. Even more disturbing is the fact that Hébert’s prompts were never meant to identify gifted students of any age. Sadly, the district continues to use these prompts, even though they yield data that are not valid for making decisions about a student’s gifted status.
Besides the district’s misuse of Hébert’s prompts, there is a much larger issue concerning the use of interviews to identify gifted children. In a position statement titled The Role of Assessment in the Identification of Gifted Students, the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) had this to say about student interviews:
Collecting these types of information is very difficult to do well because all individuals are affected by bias and prejudice, even if only at a subconscious level. If these types of data are collected, it is important that one recognize that different genders, cultures, races, ethnicities, and social classes have different ways of communicating which may impact an observer’s/interviewer’s perspective on what behaviors constitute giftedness. It is also essential to recognize one’s own views and predispositions relative to these differing subgroups of the population.
Since the vast majority of GRTs in the district of interest are White females, it can be safely assumed that the NAGC’s words of caution are germane to the interactions and communication between the interviewers and interviewees of “different genders, cultures, races, ethnicities, and social classes.” If you want to know how I was able to make this assumption, once again, please refer back to the table near the top of the post.
Recommendations for Interviews
My recommendation for the district’s interview component is to simply get rid of it. Conducting individual interviews with children is time-consuming, especially at schools with a high number of applicants for gifted services. More importantly, the information derived from the district’s interview process is neither valid nor reliable for making decisions that will chart the course for a child’s education. These educational decisions also have a great effect on the postsecondary lives of many of these children. If those are not reasons enough to do away with student interviews, here are two more:
Gender, racial, ethnic, cultural, and/or socioeconomic bias is a factor in the interview process, as noted by the NAGC.
Some people interview better than others. There is no correlation between having keen interview skills and being gifted.
In case the district’s leaders decide, for whatever reason, that student interviews cannot be eliminated, then a new set of prompts need to be developed. The prompts must be age-appropriate, culturally appropriate, and based on research about the nature and needs of gifted children. In addition, the improved interview guide should be created by people who know how to develop reliable instruments.
In my June 2021 article, I recommended two sources for schools and districts to acquire ideas for interviewing students. One source is a study by the Palo Alto Unified School District titled Dimensions of Learning for the Highly Gifted Student (Lundy, Carey, & Moore, 1978). Despite the age of the study, the methods used by the researchers to develop an interview instrument to ascertain the learning characteristics of highly gifted students in grades 3-11 are still standard practice today (e.g., expert review, field testing, revision).
The other source is a popular book, Removing the Mask: How to Identify and Develop Giftedness in Students from Poverty (Slocumb, Payne, & Williams, 2018), now in its third edition. A quote from an earlier edition relevant to our discussion of interview questions is this: “many students from poverty manifest the same attributes of giftedness as advantaged students; however, their manifestations may not be recognized because they are not couched in middle-class values and norms” (2000). Among these attributes is a “large storehouse of knowledge” that differs greatly from privileged students’ knowledge storehouses. Removing the Mask offers numerous insights about economically disadvantaged students, a population that is grossly underrepresented at the district of interest’s gifted school.
P B & T or L or A
On the district’s website, the final item on the list of criteria to determine eligibility for gifted services is “1st Grade Problem Based [sic] Task (PBT).” The reason I regularly use sic—Latin for “thus” and short for sic erat scriptum (“thus had it been written”)—is to point out grammatical errors that are not mine. “1st Grade Problem Based Task” should be “First-Grade Problem-Based Task.”
I’m not sure why the person who wrote the original list included “PBT.” While it is correct to introduce an acronym in parentheses after the first use of the full term, PBT does not appear anywhere else on the district’s website. Maybe the individual who added PBT mistakenly thought it was a frequently used education acronym like PBL and PBA, which stand for project-based learning and performance-based assessment. It’s not.
Perhaps one day I’ll hold a contest to see who can find the most errors on the district’s website. The winner will get a copy of Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. My apologies for the digression; now let’s talk about those PBTs.
What Does It Measure?
In the third and fourth installments of this series, I quoted the narrator of an informational video on the district’s website, who stated that “Gifted 2.0 [the video’s title] reflects the most effective, current, and equitable practices in gifted identification and gifted services as recommended by nationally renowned gifted education experts” and that the district’s gifted identification and gifted school selection processes are “without subjectivity.” Both claims were debunked in those posts.
Gifted 2.0 also tells us:
Grade 1 students who apply for gifted services and [the gifted school] will now have a student work sample included with their application. This work will be similar to what is on this slide.
The “student work sample” and the “1st Grade Problem Based [sic] Task” referenced on the district website’s Screening and Identification Process page are the same. The “work” on the Gifted 2.0 slide consists of worksheets – one is an Exemplars® math problem (shown below) and the other is a set of questions about the children’s book Archibald Frisby. Exemplars® math problems have typically been used by the district to produce student work samples, but there have been other tasks administered to first graders for this purpose.
I’m not going to critique what I see as Exemplars® dumbed-down “authentic performance tasks” right now; that’s a blog post unto itself. The only comment I’ll make about the worksheet above is this: most first graders would recognize that having “13 cents to spend at the store on gifts for your friend’s birthday” is downright absurd. If the first graders I taught in the 1990s had seen this worksheet, many would have ridiculed its inauthenticity, in particular the gifted kids.
Concerns about using math and language arts worksheets to decide whether a child is gifted are analogous to concerns about using standardized tests—such as the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT)—to determine giftedness. The worksheets as well as the CogAT measure achievement and ability, but these are not interchangeable terms. Student achievement is “what students were able to learn in a determined period of time” (Study.com, 2022), while ability is “the quality of being able to perform; a quality that permits or facilitates achievement or accomplishment” (Princeton University WordNet, 2022).
Since the district’s first-grade problem-based tasks measure achievement, or what a student has learned, along with ability, the quality that facilitates achievement, a first grader’s performance on a math or language arts problem-based task depends largely on what they have learned at home and in school during their short lives. In Part 3 and in Part 4, I quoted Jack Naglieri, who said that assessments like these “can become a barrier to smart children who do not have adequate academic skills. . . . The disadvantage of such tests outweighs any advantages, and the failure to include diverse populations [in gifted programs] because of limited academic skills can be described as a social injustice” (2008). I can’t see how the district’s current use of first-grade problem-based tasks will help “ensure equitable access for all students to gifted education services,” the fifth objective under Identification in the 5-year plan.
Recommendations for Problem-Based Tasks
In the late 1970s, Joseph Renzulli challenged conventional theories about giftedness with The Three Ring Conception of Giftedness. Renzulli wrote about his novel concept in an article that was rejected by gifted education journals, but was eventually published in Phi Delta Kappan in 1978. Thirty-eight years later, Dr. Renzulli said it was the most widely cited article in the field of gifted education (2016).
Briefly, The Three Ring Conception of Giftedness maintains that students who possess a combination of the three rings—the traits Above Average Ability, Creativity, and Task Commitment—exhibit gifted behavior. The Three Ring Conception of Giftedness “has revolutionized gifted and talented identification” (Renzulli Learning, 2022).
My recommendation for the district’s grade 1 problem-based tasks is the same as my recommendation for its interview protocol for students in grades 5-12 – just get rid of them. (I assume that students in grades 2-4 are neither interviewed nor given a PBT.) Instead, the district should turn its attention toward assessing creativity.
Measuring the complex attribute of creativity is another topic that would require a separate blog post to examine. It might take a full series, a project I don’t want to begin at this time. The best measures of creativity, such as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, are lengthy and expensive. Shorter, cheaper instruments are not reliable and tend to be subjective. A recent article asked, “How do you go about measuring the multifaceted and unique human quality that is creativity without killing it completely?” (Cropper & Webb, 2021).
That said, the district could—and should—overhaul its Teacher Checklist for Observing Gifted Behaviors or replace it with an instrument that has evidence of validity and reliability, something I recommended in Part 4. The seven items in the Creativity/Imagination section on the current checklist are long and confusing. The average number of words per item is over 16. Even the shortest item is confounding and doesn’t appear useful for identifying creative students: “Preoccupied with own thoughts, asks unrelated questions, may appear disorganized.” Should a teacher “place a checkmark if regularly observed” when a student is regularly preoccupied, disorganized at times, and occasionally asks an unrelated question? If a child is distracted, disorganized, and asks random questions, does that mean they’re creative?
Last But Not Least
The next installment of “Put Students First. Seek Growth. Be Open to Change” will be the last. It is, as they say on television, the season finale. The focus is on procedures used by the gifted school selection committee to decide which applicants are accepted and which ones are rejected. Further recommendations are included in the finale.
I took this photo of Dr. Joseph Renzulli at the 2020 Georgia Association for Gifted Children Annual Convention before I gave my own presentation.