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Diverse ways of identifying gifted students

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In her story, “Struggling to define excellent” (Casper Star-Tribune, Oct. 7), Leah Todd notes that some school districts in Wyoming rely on standardized tests to identify gifted children. I agree that standardized tests can be one useful basis for identifying gifted children, but it is not optimal to rely exclusively on standardized tests for such identification. There are three reasons why.

First, standardized tests are fairly narrow in the range of skills they assess (usually, knowledge and analytical reasoning with that knowledge), whereas giftedness comes in many and diverse forms. Students can be gifted scientists, mathematicians, writers, artists, or musicians, among other things. They can be analytically gifted, or creatively or practically gifted. They can be gifted in schoolwork or gifted in their pursuits outside the classroom. No one standardized test adequately will capture the range of gifts children display.

Second, all tests involve error of measurement. The younger the children are who are tested, the higher the level of error and thus the less reliable the judgments that can be made from test scores. Not all people are good standardized test-takers, and young children are notoriously variable in their test-taking skills. The risk of relying too heavily on a standardized test is that one will identify children who are gifted, but especially at taking standardized tests.

Third, children develop at remarkably different rates. Some excel early and then flame out quickly. Others excel later and then keep going. Some stand out at all points in their careers. Whatever measurements we use, we need to remember that children are dynamic, not static in their development, so we will want to reassess them often. We do not want to risk giving a standardized test to young students and then assuming that whatever they score then, that’s where they will end up.

There are broad models for identifying the gifted that go beyond standardized tests. I hope that districts will look into some of these options. For example, Joseph Renzulli has suggested identifying children on the basis of above-average ability, creativity, and task commitment (motivation). Howard Gardner has recommended looking at what he calls “multiple intelligences”: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, naturalist, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. I have suggested identifying gifted children on the basis of analytical, creative, practical, and wisdom-based/ethical skills. All of these models also offer assessments techniques for measuring these varied skills. The models have in common that they recognize that there is more to a child, and to giftedness in a child, than a score on a standardized test.

I would hope that school districts in Wyoming would consider using standardized tests for identification of the gifted only in conjunction with other measures and broader models. They will be doing a service not only to the children, but also to the development of the very best talent pool for our state.

Robert J. Sternberg is president of the University of Wyoming and a former president of the American Psychological Association as well as treasurer of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The views in this letter, however, are only his own.

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