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University-based Talent Searches for the Gifted

Gifted Research

This article by Mark DeLong describes the four university-based regional talent search programs, including the states they serve and the states in which they offer programs. The difference between the regional talent searches and other university based programs is also explained. Also included is some background on the rationale and history of such programs.

Author: DeLong, M.
Publications: Understanding Our Gifted
Publisher: Open Space Communications
Volume: Vol. 6, no. 4
Year: March/April 1994

For about the past 15 years, gifted middle-school students throughout the United States have had opportunities to test their talents and follow their strengths in college-level academic programs offered by “talent search programs.” Although colleges have long hosted groups of bright pre-college students in special programs-some offering college credit, it was only in the early 1980s that a handful of universities systematically brought together resources to identify, help to educate, counsel, and study academically talented youngsters. The organizations providing these comprehensive services are generally called “talent search programs” or just “talent searches.” They are headquartered at Duke University (Durham, NC), the University Denver, Northwestern University (Evanston, IL), and The Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD). Between these four talent searches, students throughout the entire United States have access to talent identification services, publications, and educational programs. During the past 15 years, about one million students have taken part in at least one of the talent search programs.

The Name “Talent Search”
In a sense the tag talent search is a bit of a misrepresentation, since none of the four regional talent search organizations has the history or uses the method of, say, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, which has operated for decades and uses a system of graded competitions. The term is also applied to projects centered at major land-grant universities, like Arizona State University, Iowa State University, the University of Iowa, and California State University, Sacramento. Although there are significant overlaps in method and philosophy between these projects and the regional talent searches, the four regional talent searches at Duke, Northwestern, Denver, and Johns Hopkins are distinguished by history, by scope of programs, and by their confederated efforts in identification, and educational programming.

In a sense the term talent search refers to a single aspect of each of the regional organizations: the major “identification” activity, or the middle-school talent search.

“Out-Of-Level” Testing
Following the lead of work done in the mid-1970s by Dr. Julian Stanley of The Johns Hopkins University, the four regional talent searches systematically find middle-school students who score exceptionally well on nationally normed standardized tests and then offer these students the opportunity to take either the American College Testing Program’s ACT or the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT-l), which is a revised and renamed version of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). According to the designers of the test, the SA T -1 measures the same thing as the “old” unnumbered SAT. The talent search students will first take the new SAT-1 in 1994-1995.

Of course, these tests were designed for students planning to enter college, and typically high school juniors and seniors take the SAT-1 and/or the ACT. In effect, the talent search organizations ask students of exceptional ability to take the tests about five years before they would “normally” take them, because the tests are appropriate for the young students by intellectual ability, though not by age. Because of the age disparity between the high school students for whom the tests were designed and the age of the middle school students who take the tests in the talent search, the SAT-l and ACT are called “out-of-level” tests for the talent search students.

Even though talent search students take the SAT–l or ACT five years before most of the other test-takers, they nevertheless do quite well. As a matter of fact, a good number of the talent search students actually outscore the older students for whom the tests are age-appropriate. Overall, between one-quarter and one-third of the students in the Duke University TIP Talent Search score as well or better than the average college-bound senior-and they do this when they have not yet completed the seventh grade.

Results are similar in the talent searches run by Northwestern’s Center for Talent Development (CTD), Western Academic Talent Search (WATS) (formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Talent Search (RMTS)), and The Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth (CTY).

The regional talent search system has several advantages, not the least of which is its straightforward operation. Students meeting the talent search eligibility criteria simply apply to the talent search organization and subsequently register with the testing agency. (Paula Olszewski-Kubilius’ article in this issue of Understanding Our Gifted provides more detailed information on eligibility criteria for the talent searches and on the research basis for the programs.) Both the ACT and the SAT-I have well established testing centers throughout the nation, making travel to a test site quite easy. Moreover, their Saturday testing dates do not interrupt school schedules. Both of the tests are fairly well known, a fact which allows school personnel to make quick sense of test results. And, since the regional talent searches have been operating for nearly 15 years, the testing agencies and the talent search programs have streamlined their processes so that students and their parents promptly receive test results and other materials. A seventh grader registering with a talent search program in the fall can test in December, January or February, get an individual score report from the testing agency about six weeks after testing, and have interpretative information in April-in time for planning the following academic year’s coursework. If that student scores well enough, she might choose to attend an intensive summer program in June.

Educational Programs
Each of the regional talent searches runs summer programs for students who have been through the talent search process. In the main, these programs are geared toward students achieving at high levels on the ACT or SAT (or, soon, the SAT-I), though each of the talent search programs makes educational experiences available to all students participating in the searches. Intensive summer residential programs take place on several college campuses throughout the nation. The Johns Hopkins University’s CTY offers programs at sites in California, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Duke University TIP runs programs in North Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas-some of which are specialized scientific field research programs. Northwestern University’s CTD offers a comprehensive set of five programs for talented students beginning in the sixth grade and extending to the post-graduation year. The University of Denver’s RMTS offers a two-week program for rising sixth to eighth graders and a three-week program for rising ninth through eleventh graders. Duke’s TIP and Johns Hopkins’ CTY each have programs overseas, with TIP’s programs taking place in six countries on two continents.

The summer residential programs share certain characteristics. All of them provide talented students with opportunities for academic acceleration, especially in mathematics. All of them use SAT or ACT scores to determine eligibility; students are eligible if they have achieved, in seventh grade, scores roughly corresponding to average scores for college-bound seniors. Duke’s TIP has higher eligibility scores than the other talent search programs, however. All of the programs offer a broad range of courses, and they tend to model their offerings after liberal arts curriculum. These are not just programs for students interested in science and mathematics, though parents often misconstrue the programs as only for youngsters with high math ability.

Elementary School Projects
The talent searches have recently begun offering services to students in elementary schools. In 1994, all of the regional talent searches offered talent identification services throughout their respective talent search regions. [See map below] Like the middle-school talent searches, the elementary school process has eligibility criteria based on grade level and achievement or intelligence test scores. TIP’s Motivation for Academic Performance (MAP) Program does not require testing for students to participate fully, though follow up testing is offered as an optional service to the students and their families. TIP’s efforts in the MAP program focus on providing information and guidance to gifted students and their families, and MAP has been designed with direct, locally based services in mind. For the other talent search organizations, a follow up test is mandatory, and participation in a commuter or residential educational program is an option.

CTY has run educational programs for talented elementary school students for seven years, but has only recently begun programming residential programs for this age group. The other regional talent searches are building similar services for elementary school students.

Presuppositions and Commitments
Although I can write most authoritatively about TIP’s perspective in particular, the talent searches have crafted programs and services around certain suppositions about academic talent. The basic suppositions are:

  • Academically talented children have special needs that should be met. The sooner needs are met the better for the development of the child.
  • Normed standardized tests serve a useful purpose in the identification of highly talented individuals, even though such instruments cannot claim to identify talented individuals exhaustively.
  • Programs and services for highly talented individuals have a better chance of being successful when they build on strengths in the individual and, organizationally, on the strengths of institutions. This principle especially applies to TIP’s academic programs, but it also animates the advice we at TIP give to students. So, in the case of college selection, TIP advises students to look at their distinct preferences and abilities first and then seek an “optimal match” in a college.
  • The acceleration model for academic programs is useful and is often the preferable model to use in programs for academically talented students, especially in fields of study with well-defined curricula such as mathematics. The emphasis of precollegiate academic programs should be on mastery of knowledge and on building the foundation for high-level study.
  • The talent search programs perform a service to more of the population than just the highly talented, for by improving the understanding of talent, they play a role in developing talent generally.

Some of these points are controversial, as advocates for gifted children know. Gifted education in the broad sense is under attack either because it is deemed “elitist” or because it simply falls victim to education budget cuts. Some see the notion that gifted children have special needs as provocative in itself. Indeed, opponents of gifted education have argued against services for the gifted because such services are interpreted as special privileges for a few.

In several states, standardized testing has been modified, and in a few states support for norm-referenced tests has been withdrawn or severely curtailed. In some cases, this is a matter of budget belt-tightening. In other cases, support for standardized testing has waned because of a perception that the tests do not measure “real world” skills and abilities. Beyond this, some states (most notably Kentucky) have refocused their testing programs to serve systemic school reform efforts rather than provide information for individual student assessment.

Criterion-referenced tests have become more popular in some states. But because criterion-referenced tests are designed to determine competence using criteria established independent of anyone’s performance on the test itself, criterion-referenced tests do not differentiate students by their abilities relative to each other (as norm-referenced tests do). Criterion-referenced tests can show whether a student has competence in broadly defined skills, but the tests do not rank a student’s performance relative to other students’ performances on the test. Thus, criterion-referenced tests do not serve very well as a means of identifying students of exceptional ability.

Points three and four-building on strengths and academic acceleration-interrelate. The regional talent searches encourage students to accelerate through precalculus mathematics, for example, if they have a particularly exceptional talent in math. And, in fact, it is the expectation at TIP’s summer residential programs that exceptionally gifted students master one precalculus math course over a three-week program. Students accelerate so that they can study more challenging and higher-level topics in their areas of strength.

The talent searches are committed to research, partially because of the fact that they are all housed at universities. TIP’s own research and much of that in the field does not lead us to believe that talent development is solely a matter of heredity but is instead greatly influenced by environment. Because TIP believes this, TIP seeks to enrich the environments of talented children through broad distribution of information. Although TIP’s programs center on developing talent in children, one of the most important parts of TIP’s work is providing information to families, to teachers, and to communities so that each can play a role in developing talent and in helping talents become expressed. We at TIP see an obligation to identify and develop talent among groups that have been neglected-especially among females and under-represented minority groups. Research into the phenomenon of giftedness, we believe, can lead us to practices that actually make expression of talent more likely.

Why University-Based?
Characteristics of the home institutions of the talent search programs certainly shape the organizations. It is no accident that the four regional talent searches are located at private institutions which picture themselves as serving at least regional constituencies.

TIP is a case in point. Based at Duke University, which pictures itself as having a national, if not international, constituency, TIP aims to serve regions, though its programs are significant at the state and local levels as well. Since it is not part of a single state or local education agency, TIP has freedoms that are not available to other educational agencies and can at times perform an integrative function for those agencies. The talent searches are designed to be readily available to students across a multi-state search region, and the consequences of participation in the talent searches are similar from state to state and from talent search region to talent search region.

The fact of calling a university home means paying special attention to research and evaluation for the sake of discovering new knowledge. As such, research conducted by the talent search organizations is also required to benefit scholarly communities at universities, although this research certainly benefits students by serving as a basis for improving programs. Also, as a university-based program for precollege students, the talent search programs serve as bridges between secondary and post-secondary institutions.

Animated by commitments to service and research, the regional talent searches have roles to play in informing policy makers about educational issues of gifted students and in providing services directly to gifted students and their families. This breadth of activity makes the regional talent searches increasingly important resources for our nation and for every family with gifted children.

Talent Search Information:
Duke Talent Identification Program (TIP) – Durham, NC

Center for Talent Development (CTD)
Northwestern University – Evanston, Illinois

Center for Talented Youth (CTY)
The Johns Hopkins University – Baltimore, Maryland

Western Academic Talent Search (WATS) (formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Talent Search (RMTS))
Westminster, Colorado

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