Talent search: A driving force in gifted education
Olszewski-Kubilius, P.
Understanding Our Gifted
Open Space Communications
Vol. 6, No. 4
March/April 1994

This article by Paula Olszewski-Kubilius offers an overview of the concept and practice of the Talent Search programs. It reviews the history, purpose, and benefits of the programs. In addition, it highlights specific research that discusses their reliability and validity.

What is Talent Search?
When one uses the term "talent search" among a group of educators of the gifted it means something very specific. The term refers to an educational program carried out at four universities within the United States. Although the four programs have unique features, all of them conduct the talent search in basically the same way. Seventh and eighth grade students who score at the 95th percentile or above on a standardized achievement test register to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the American College Testing Program (ACT). These tests are typically taken by high school students who are preparing to attend college. Historically, the tests were developed to predict college performance and to place students appropriately within the college curriculum. Younger students take them because they provide a better measure of their intellectual abilities than standardized achievement test designed for their age. Based on students' scores on the SAT or ACT, various kinds of educational options and experiences, ranging from high level enrichment courses to subject and grade acceleration, and recommended. And participants are eligible for many programs designed especially for them. All of this occurs for over 150,000 students annually, ages 13 or 14 years old.

How Talent Search Began
The talent search grew out of Dr. Julian Stanley's search for a test to measure the mathematical reasoning abilities of exceptional children. He discovered the value of the SAT for this purpose. In 1972, Dr. Stanley and his colleagues at The Johns Hopkins University began administering the SA T to groups of students from broader geographic areas around Baltimore. Eventually, this process became systematized into the talent search. Dr. Stanley founded the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) to continue his research of bright children. The Center for Talented Youth (CTY) was created at Johns Hopkins University to conduct the talent search (in both verbal and mathematics domains) in the northeastern and eventually the southwestern regions of the country. Other sites replicated the basic operations developed by Stanley and CTY and began talent searches in other regions of the U .S.: Duke University serves the south and southeast, Northwestern University serves the midwest and the University of Denver serves the northwest.

How is Talent Search Unique?
The talent searches are different from most programs available to gifted children. First of all, they are conducted by universities rather than local schools. Talent searches are an "extra-educational" type of gifted program. Schools may notify children about the talent search, but parents and students typically make the decision about whether to participate. Yet, the results of the testing have important implications for the educational programs children should have in school.

Second, the talent searches deliver services to gifted children and their families on a regional basis. This means that the special characteristics of certain areas of the country can be incorporated into service delivery procedures. Also, educational programs that are within a reasonable geographic distance from children's schools and communities can be made available to them.

Benefits of Talent Search
Cost Effective and Efficient
Talent searches are cost effective and efficient ways of identifying children in need of special educational programs. For a total cost of under $50, students and parents receive information about their children's abilities that can be used to plan their entire school program from seventh through twelfth grade. Scores on the SAT or ACT can alert parents and educators to the need for early access to advanced courses, early entrance to high school and even college. Through the talent searches, students are readily notified about hundreds of summer and other extra-educational programs for which they may qualify. Because the testing occurs in groups, many more children can be accommodated than is possible with individual IQ testing. The cost is far less than that associated with private evaluations conducted by a licensed psychologist.

Based on Sound Educational Principles and Practices
The talent searches embody excellent and easy methods of identification and assessment. They utilize the practice of out-of-level testing, using a test designed for older children since the tests typically employed with younger children do not provide accurate assessments of their abilities. Most standardized achievement tests are designed to be given in relatively short periods of time to groups of students who vary greatly in their aptitude. As a result, most do not contain enough difficult test items to assess the abilities of bright children. On grade level achievement tests, most gifted students score extremely well. But even among these students there are different levels of ability. Tests written for older students do a better job of accurately measuring bright children's reasoning abilities. If a music teacher has a new student who already has some musical skill, the teacher may have the student play several pieces of increasing difficulty in order to gauge the student's capabilities and determine where to begin instruction. It is the same procedure with talent search testing. Students have already taken a test designed for their age group and performed almost perfectly. The SAT or ACT is the "more difficult piece" that will give a better picture of their reasoning abilities and subsequent instructional needs.

Consistent with Children's Development
With age, there is increasing differentiation of intellectual abilities, particularly during adolescence. Measures of global intelligence are more appropriate for younger children whose cognitive abilities are more highly inter-correlated. An older child's relative standing in one ability may bear little relationship to his or her standing in another ability. At adolescence, "generalized abilities are channeled into specific domains, and aptitude tests are considered better indicators of ability than intelligence tests" (Silverman, 1986, p. 139). The SAT, which involves two areas, and the ACT which involves four areas, help to ascertain students' abilities in important areas of academic aptitude.

Guides Educational Planning
The results of talent search testing tell educators and parents the specific academic areas in which students demonstrate aptitude (e.g., verbal, mathematical) and help them decide what kinds of courses and programs to pursue. Talent search is not an activity designed to separate the gifted from the nongifted. Its purpose is to provide a more accurate assessment of the abilities of students who, by virtue of their scores on grade level achievement tests, are already considered gifted and talented. Thus, educational programming of a special kind is required for all students who participate-for those who score at the low end as well as the high end of the test. Recommendations for students scoring at different levels range from primarily enrichment to accelerative in nature and from mild acceleration (i.e., taking classes one or two years early) to more extreme forms of acceleration (i.e., markedly early entrance to college). Higher scores indicate that students can learn a subject more quickly and within a more compressed time frame. The value of talent search becomes clear if one considers what would happen to students without it. Students who score the same on grade level achievement tests, say at the 99th percentile, might have very different SAT scores. One student may score 350 on the SAT-Mathematics section while the other may score 650. With-out the out-of-level testing, these students would be treated the same by their school district when in reality they require very different kinds of educational programs. One student needs enrichment classes in math and early access to algebra. The other student needs access to the entire precalculus curriculum, compression of four years of math into two years or less, and early access to college mathematics courses.

Promotes Programs
The talent search has led to a flowering of educational program models and opportunities designed to serve participants. These have taken many different forms: fast paced summer classes and Saturday programs, early access to Advanced Placement courses, enrollment of junior high students in high school courses, dual enrollment of high school students in college classes, correspondence courses for high school and college level courses, and early entrance programs for college. Each of the universities that conduct a talent search produces a compendium of educational programs within its region, and the number of programs grows annually.

Research--Supports Talent Search
There is a great deal of research to support the practices underlying the talent search. Below is a sampling of research findings.

  1. The two-tiered identification process involved in talent search is valid. It demonstrates that grade level achievement tests cannot discern levels of talent among high achieving students and that a cut-off at the 95th percentile on grade level achievement tests is both efficient and effective to choose students for further assessment. Using this percentile does not eliminate great numbers of students who could score well on the SAT nor does it subject many students to testing who then perform poorly on the test (Ebmeier & Schmulbach, 1989).
  2. While the SAT was not initially designed for younger students, the test is not too difficult for them. The percentages of talent search students and high school students who score at the low end of the test (i.e., below 300 on SAT-M or SAT-V) are essentially the same, indicating that the younger students are not more likely to do poorly on the test (Wilder & Casserly, 1988). Most talent search students score above chance level on the test-i.e. higher than scores one would obtain from guessing, suggesting that most students are not overwhelmed by the test (Burton, 1988).
  3. The talent search is successful in identifying students who demonstrate advanced academic abilities and achievement compared to other students. When they take the SAT in high school, these students continue to surpass other college bound seniors. They are more likely to take high school honors classes and Advanced Placement courses, particularly in the areas of mathematics and science; to accelerate in high school; to earn honors and awards; and yet to maintain active participation in extra-curricular activities. Their educational aspirations are extremely high (Burton, 1988).
  4. Scores on the SAT in junior high are predictive of achievement ten years later and differences in SAT scores among talent search participants relate to differences in eventual academic achievement (Benbow, 1992).
  5. Students who participate in accelerated classes subsequent to talent search are successful. They can learn material typically taught to older students at a faster pace, more appropriately matched to their learning rate, and learn it as well as students in more traditionally paced courses (VanTassel-Baska, 1986).

Talent Search Affects General Education
Talent search has had many positive effects on general education. The sheer number of students participating annually in talent search and in special summer and other kinds of academic programs has brought attention to the needs of these learners. It is difficult for schools to ignore a seventh or eighth grader who scores better than the average high school student on the SAT. The talent search has often galvanized parents to join together to lobby for better services for gifted children at their local schools.

In addition, the talent search has been the impetus for colleges and universities across the country to offer special programs for students. All of the regional talent searches are based at universities and conduct programs for pre-college students. These have been replicated at many other institutions and a host of different types of programs have been developed.

In an effort to serve talent search participants, many collaborations have formed between universities and school districts. For example, the Chicago Public Schools utilizes area universities to offer fast-paced classes for students identified by the SAT. Collaboration between the Ingham County schools in Michigan and Michigan State University (MSU), in the development of four programs for talent search participants, led to the establishment of an Office of Gifted and Talented Programs at MSU. And a collaborative arrangement among school districts in Kalamazoo, Michigan, allowed students to attend an accelerated math program at Kalamazoo College. The program has been replicated at three other colleges in Michigan.

Talent search has brought important issues to the attention of educators, issues that have ramifications for all learners, not just academically talented ones. For example, because talent search participants now regularly take courses at universities and colleges, the issue of credit for those courses has become important. Some states, e.g., Indiana, have passed legislation that allows students to receive high school credit for coursework completed outside of their local school. Thus, all students have additional opportunities and additional incentives to partake of them.

Talent search has helped to reform and set standards for curricula in local schools and districts. Because so many students are taking algebra or literature in the seventh or eighth grade, schools have been forced to review the curriculum and "up-grade" it for grades one through six. Similarly, as more and more students take advanced courses early, high schools have had to offer additional choices or make arrangements for students to take college classes in their last years of high school. Talent search has also provided a large group of academically talented students to study. Significant research efforts exist at all of the institutions that conduct regional talent searches. Major longitudinal studies of the achievements of various subgroups of talent search participants have been undertaken by SMPY. These studies have provided a great deal of information about these individuals' development and have alerted the broader community of scholars to the capabilities and needs of talented children.

The Future of Talent Search
Talent search programs face certain challenges in the near future. Currently, many educators believe that standardized tests are inadequate measures of achievement because there appears to be a disparity between what these tests measure and what is required for competent functioning in the real world. Assessments of achievement should mirror the activities and standards of professionals in the real world (Wiggins, 1989). In response to this and financial pressures, some school districts are abandoning the use of standardized achievement tests or using them only at certain grades. This may make entry into the talent search more difficult and challenges talent search programs to develop alternative means of finding qualified participants.

Talent search programs have moved gifted education forward in many significant ways. A web of services and programs for students has been built upon the talent search base. And talent searches have been a stable force in education for over a decade. It is doubtful whether we will see such a simple yet elegant embodiment of good educational practice influence so many students and aspects of education again.


Benbow. C.P. (1992). Academic achievement in mathematics and science of students between ages 13 and 23: Are there differences among students in the top one percent of mathematical ability? Journal of Educational Psychology, 84,51-61.

Burton, N.W. (1988). Young SAT-takers: Two surveys. Survey II: Test-taking history for 1980-81 young SAT-takers. College Board Report No.88-1. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

Ebmeier. H. & Schmulbach. S. (1989). An examination of the selection practices used in the talent search program. Gifted Child Quarterly, 33, 134-143.

Silverman, L.K. (1986). The IQ Controversy: Conception and misconceptions. Roeper Review, 8, 136-140.

VanTassel-Baska, J. (1986). The use of aptitude tests for identifying the gifted: The talent search concept. Roeper Review, 8, 185-199.

Wiggins, G. (May, 1989). A true test: Toward more authentic and equitable assessment. Phi Beta Kappa, 70, 9.

Wilder, G & Casserly, P.L. (1988). Young SAT takers: Two surveys. Survey 1: Young SAT takers and their parents. College Board Report No.88-1. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

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