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Best Practices of Schools that Nurture Excellence

Gifted Education and Support

The Charter School of Wilmington and the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities are two schools highlighted in Genius Denied (Chapter 6). Both schools are publicly funded. Charter takes advantage of Delaware’s charter school legislation that allows administrators more freedom in creating a curriculum. Indiana Academy is a residential school that serves high school juniors and seniors from across the state. Schools such as these that specialize in gifted education offer a glimpse of the best practices for serving gifted students.

The first step in serving gifted students is identification.

Testing is the most objective and perhaps the most common method for identifying gifted learners. There are two primary types of tests that have been used to identify gifted students:

  • Intelligence tests – The most commonly used intelligence tests are those that comprise the Stanford-Binet and Wechsler series. Each test contains a series of sub-tests that measure characteristics of verbal and performance intelligence. Although intelligence tests have been challenged on whether they actually measure intelligence, there is a strong correlation between IQ scores and real ability, making the tests a valuable tool in identifying gifted students. The tests do have shortcomings, however, and should not be considered the final word on any young person’s abilities.
  • Achievement tests – Individually administered achievement tests, such as the Woodcock-Johnson Test of Achievement are useful in pinpointing a student’s academic strengths. Group-administered aptitude tests, such as the SAT or ACT, can also be informative, particularly when administered to students who are younger than the intended audience. For example, a seventh-grader who scores an 800 on the math section of the SAT is likely to need special accommodations.

 

Testing should always be paired with observation. Observation may come in the form of reviewing a portfolio, conducting an interview, observing the student in the classroom, utilizing peer nominations or talking with individuals who can speak to the student’s abilities. Whatever the method, it’s important to focus on the student as a whole – not to merely categorize him or her based upon test scores.

Once gifted students are identified, a program of study matched to their unique abilities must be developed. Schools such as Charter and Indiana Academy employ a variety of strategies to adapt their curriculum to every student. And, in doing so, must recognize that even amongst the gifted, there is huge variability. The following strategies have a track record of success.

Acceleration is a highly effective strategy. Fears that accelerated students will face either gaps in basic knowledge or negative social and emotional effects have been largely discounted by research. In fact, a number of studies have indicated that exceptionally intelligent students actually benefit socially from acceleration. In addition, this approach is simple and cost-effective. Schools can apply acceleration in two ways:

  • Grade acceleration – Sometimes called grade skipping, this option allows students who demonstrate mastery to move to a higher grade level. This option is best for students who show consistently advanced development across subjects. Students who are advanced enough to require grade acceleration once may need to accelerate again in the future as they continue to outpace their classmates.
  • Subject acceleration – This option is more appropriate for students who have uneven development across skills or subjects: For example an 8-year-old math prodigy with only moderately above average verbal skills will likely only need acceleration in math. This method can be applied by allowing students to move into higher grades for specific classes at the school or seek advanced instruction outside the school – often through distance learning course substitution.

 

Compacting relies on the practice of pre-testing students for subject mastery. When a student is able to demonstrate sufficient mastery of a subject, generally considered to be a score of 80 percent or higher, that student is given the opportunity for alternative instruction or projects, which often are complementary to the topic. This technique can be applied to sections or to an entire course. The advantage is that students who already possess the target skills and knowledge are not required to stagnate while other students receive instruction. It also encourages gifted students to progress at their own pace while ensuring that they have no gaps in their core knowledge and skills.

Ability grouping involves providing instruction to select groups of students with similar abilities. This approach sometimes is rejected as contrary to mainstreaming and the idea of “least restrictive environment.” This should be clarified, however, because ability grouping does not restrict any individual based on disability and, in fact, provides a less restrictive environment for high-achievers. Some also argue that removing high-achievers deprives more average students of role models, however, this is not supported by research, which indicates that students tend to select role models with abilities similar to their own. Ability grouping generally is applied in one of two ways:

  • Within-class grouping – Commonly referred to as clustering, this method involves grouping gifted students together in the classroom for special lessons or projects. It may be more inclusive than other types of gifted programming, and it is less costly than pull-out programming. However, clustering may create extra work for the teacher, and it can be difficult to integrate assignments with the core curriculum.
  • Between-class grouping – Rather than focusing on individual plans, between-class grouping gathers students of high ability from different classrooms, which may be at one school or a number of schools. Between-class grouping can be divided into two categories:
    • Pull-out programming – Pull-out programs gather gifted learners for a period of special instruction. Most often pull-out programs are focused on enrichment activities. Although such programs allow interaction among gifted students, they tend to be poorly integrated with the core curriculum and may lack continuity because they do not meet daily. Pull-out programs also can be disruptive for students who miss a portion of a day’s instruction to attend the group.
    • Special Class Model – Under this model, classes are assigned by ability rather than by age. This is the model employed by Twin Branch Elementary School in Mishawka, Indiana. Chapter 2 in Genius Denied tells how this blue-collar community has made a commitment to its brightest students and gathers them together in a magnet program that offers a more rigorous curriculum than is available in other schools in the district. Such an arrangement allows students and teachers to focus on subject matter and progress at a pace that is more appropriate to the class as a whole than when student ability is ignored or purposely spread among classrooms. This model has the advantages of a consistent and integrated curriculum and potentially lower cost than pull-out programming.

 

Enrichment provides students with additional activities, projects or materials outside the regular curriculum. Often these materials are designed to foster creativity and problem solving. Such programs are meant to provide a deeper, richer educational experience than is available through the regular curriculum. Enrichment often is applied through pull-out programs, however, it might also be offered as a supplementary or extracurricular opportunity. Enrichment often is not integrated well with the regular curriculum, but still may provide an important source of stimulation for many students.

Differentiated Curriculums, such as Renzulli’s Enrichment Triad and the Parallel Curriculum, offer a structure in which teachers can tailor their lessons to the needs of students at various levels. The Renzulli Enrichment Triad allows self-directed and self-motivated students to attempt individual projects in their areas of interest. Although not specifically gifted programming, it does offer enough flexibility for students to embark on challenging and advanced endeavors. The Parallel Curriculum model involves four tracks (core, connections, practice, identity) on which teachers can create lesson plans that will challenge students of different abilities.

Schools committed to providing gifted students with an appropriate education will likely employ several of these strategies. The key to successful programming is flexibility. Schools that determine each student’s ability and match the curriculum to ability, rather than age alone, are the best match for gifted students.

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