Low income and minority students are substantially underrepresented in gifted and talented education programs all across the United States. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, in the U.S. in 2006, 13.1% of Asian/Pacific Islander students and 8% of white students had been identified as gifted whereas only 4.2% of Hispanic students and 3.6% of black students had been identified. Although a number of environmental and societal reasons may contribute to such a large gap, there is evidence suggesting that relying on a referral system to identify giftedness also plays a role.
In a referral system, students are nominated to enter the gifted identification process by parents or teachers. Nominees are typically then evaluated further, often via a standardized test. However, parents can sometimes bypass this step by hiring private psychologists to test (and retest) their children. Some research has shown that teacher nominations can be associated with greater disparity in identification rates based on race or ethnicity.
Researchers recently examined whether the introduction of a method called “universal screening” affects the demographic composition of students identified as gifted. Under universal screening, all students are tested and thus eligible for identification without referrals. A recent study compared gifted student demographic representation before and after universal screening was introduced and discovered the following:
- Introduction of universal screening nearly doubled the number of low income, minority, and English language learning students identified as gifted.
- The distribution of IQ scores for the students identified under universal screening was very similar to the distribution among those identified under the referral system—meaning identification standards were not compromised by the universal screening method.
- Gifted students identified via universal screening benefited at least as much from participating in the gifted program as those students who would have been identified from the referral system.
Additionally, under universal screening, gifted students were more likely to come from schools in poorer neighborhoods that had relatively fewer students identified as gifted under the identification process that required referrals. The change to universal screening led to a substantial equalization in gifted identification across schools in the district.
It is important to note that universal screening does not change the rigor or academic standards for the gifted identification. Rather, it tries to eliminate any bias or hurdles from a referral-based system. These findings suggest that some of the “gifted identification gap” for underrepresented poor and minority students in gifted education may be accounted for through the problems in referral systems.
However, one hurdle for many universal screening processes is that they can be expensive to implement if they require students to take additional testing that is not part of the regular school testing schedule. One potential route to avoid such additional expenses would be to rely on testing that is already part of the regular school testing schedule. However, this may not be possible in states with laws mandating the use of other tests, such as IQ tests, for gifted program identification purposes.