Navigating Gifted and Talented Identification and Programming

 I started Heroes with my mom in 2007 to find and create social, emotional, and academic programming for my profoundly gifted little brother – and other kids like him, but it was far before this that I realized, the world wasn’t built for kids like him.

He struggled in school. He was moved from one kindergarten class to another. He teetered on the edge of failing primary school, and yet, at home, he was reading Tolkien. He hated school.  He complained that it was boring and repeatedly questioned why he had to attend school at all.  He struggled to make friends; he was isolated and lonely in a sea of kids.


But, trying to convince the school that he was capable or so much more was a struggle. How could a kid who was failing 2nd grade language arts be “advanced?”  Like many other gifted kids I’ve worked with since then, the school argued that he needed to “do well” at what he was already being given before they’d consider anything else – in other words, he needed to learn to cope with the boredom, play the game of school, and cater to their interests to get what he NEEDED.  

His third grade teacher fought for him though. She recognized that he wasn’t just a “behavioral problem;” he was failing to cope with the never ending boredom that school caused him. And my mom fought for him too. Between the two of them, they were able to convince the school to at least see if he knew more – and how much more. And thus began the “testing” series.  

The school gave him the state assessments for his current grade level. He passed with flying colors. They gave him the test for the next grade level, and the next, and so on and so forth until he took the 11th grade assessment. Either out of curiosity or disbelief, they also gave him end of year exams for math and language arts too. He almost passed the Algebra I exam, and so, they put him in Accelerated 5th grade math.

My mom brought him for a private IQ evaluation because the school couldn’t or wouldn’t give him an IQ test unless he showed signs of a learning deficiency, and that was certainly not the case. Through all this testing, we were able to accomplish a few things. 

  1. Taking the SAT gained him admittance into CTY SET which introduced us to a whole community of other kids like him.
  2. The professionals surrounding him were forced to recognize that he wasn’t failing because he was incapable of learning,
  3. He gained some much needed accomodations in school to study independently for some subjects and to attend the 5th grade accelerated math class (although he was ready for Algebra).

He took a lot of tests that year, more tests than most kids take in their entire academic year. I think that’s true for a lot of gifted kids. As a society, our go-to resolution for a potentially gifted child is to test them, but testing isn’t the solution. It is – or it should be– a tool to make decisions regarding a child’s academic, social, and emotional needs. 

 Within gifted education, testing can be utilized to identify gifted students, to identify learning disabilities in twice-exceptional students, and to assess academic performance and progress. 

While IQ testing is the most thorough evaluation of an individual’s intellectual abilities, it’s not often used to identify gifted students for in-school gifted and talented programs.  It’s time consuming; an IQ test alone can take several hours.  It can be cost prohibitive; most insurance carriers will only cover IQ testing as part of a larger neuropsychological evaluation if a disability is also suspected.  In most states in the United States, IQ tests must be administered by licensed psychologists; there are a few states that permit educational diagnosticians to conduct IQ tests, but they typically need to do so under the supervision of a psychologist due to the licensing requirements of test publishers. 


Between the time they take to administer, professional credentials required, and the cost to purchase the tests themselves, the cost for a private IQ evaluation starts at around $500, which typically only includes scores (no written report or consult with the test administrator before/after).  If you “just” need an FSIQ to qualify for a gifted program, this may be sufficient; however an IQ test with a full report and consult typically costs $1,000+.  If you’re looking to better understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses, the report is worthwhile.  Often, the test administrators observations and interpretations are more informative than the “numbers” themselves.  When included in a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation, the cost is typically $2,000+ without insurance.  

As a result, most schools rely on one or multiple other measures to identify gifted students. One of these measures is often (but not always) a school-based abilities test.  School-based abilities tests focus specifically on abilities related to school-performance.  They’re less thorough than an IQ test, and they can miss identifying low-achieving gifted students, but they’re also faster and more affordable, making them more feasible to administer to an entire school population. They can be used as screeners — to identify which students the school should look more closely at for a gifted program.  Sometimes these tests are the only measure used to identify students for a gifted program.

The CogAT test is a school ability-based group-administered test.  It focuses specifically on reasoning skills that are related to school success.The CogAT Verbal battery assesses vocabulary, verbal memory, the ability to determine word relationships, and comprehension.  The CogAT Quantitative Battery assesses mathematical reasoning and problem solving skills, numerical sequencing, and pattern recognition. The CogAT Nonverbal Battery assesses reasoning and problem solving skills related to patterns and relationships.  It takes about 60 to 90 minutes to administer; this is sometimes broken up over several days.  

The OLSAT, or Otis Lennon School Ability Test, is another school ability test that can be administered in a group setting.  It measures a student’s ability to follow directions, to complete analogies, create patterns, remember words and numbers, identify similarities and differences, to solve math problems, and more.  Like the CogAT, it’s quick and affordable for schools to administer to a large number of students.  


Because these ability tests are age-based, they also have a ceiling effect; however, they’re meant to be used as screeners rather than thorough evaluations of a child’s abilities and intellect.  In essence, it’s typically not necessary to see how far beyond the ceiling a child can achieve as it wouldn’t change the end result; most schools do not have separate programs for gifted, highly gifted, and profoundly gifted students, and private programs exclusive to profoundly gifted students typically require more thorough evaluations such as IQ testing.

A strong identification policy allows multiple measures of ability or performance.  Other measures may include grades, other standardized tests, teacher recommendations, and/or private evaluations.  Unfortunately, many schools require multiple measures as “ADDs” to the identification process; students need to meet the criteria on ALL of the measures rather than some or one of the measures.  Weaker performance on one of these measures doesn’t necessarily mean your child is not gifted, but it may mean that your child isn’t a good fit for this specific gifted and talented program. 

If part of the admissions process for the local gifted and talented program includes achievement testing, the program itself may require higher levels of achievement. While your gifted child may be capable of achieving at a higher level, putting them in a program that skips ahead in the curriculum wouldn’t be a good fit for them at this time.  If your child is able to accelerate, you may find more suitable options outside the school system that place your child into a class based on their current abilities while also accelerating the curriculum.   At a later point in time, your child may become a more suitable candidate for an above grade level program in school; you will likely need to request a new evaluation as not all schools reevaluate students for placement into gifted and talented programs each year.

On the other hand, some gifted students show poor grades in school that do not match their actual skill set.  For example, my younger brother was actually failing elementary school, but he was capable of doing work several years beyond his grade level. The work wasn’t interesting to him, and he didn’t see why he needed to prove what he knew. This puts you, your child, and the school in a difficult position. As one public school teacher I spoke to recently said, every parent wants their child to believe their child is gifted. If they took every parent at their word, the gifted program would no longer be exclusive to gifted students, and the program would no longer be able to adequately serve the students truly in need of those programs.

  In these cases, a high stakes achievement test can provide “proof” of a child’s achievement IF the child is motivated to do well.   Students take standardized tests every year.  While schools and parents often stress the importance of these tests, many students are very aware that their performance on these standardized tests does not typically affect their school experience or day-to-day.  They don’t “get” anything out of doing well on standardized tests.  For students that simply want to do well for themself, their teacher, and/or their parents, this is fine, and the results can be considered reliable.  For the typically unmotivated student, it’s important to find a way to motivate them to do well.  Understanding that this particular test matters is the first step.  Consider what motivates your child outside of school.  A child who wants to get on a competitive sports team will do their best at try-outs.  A child who wants to go to their friend’s house after school may finish their homework earlier in the day so that they’re free later on. Find the motivation, use it, and the results will provide a better picture of your child’s academic abilities.

Teacher recommendations are often a factor in placement into gifted and talented programs.  Students who are acting out in class or underperforming may struggle to get the teacher recommendation needed to gain admittance into a gifted program.  Unfortunately, the services provided in a gifted program may also be the answer to these problems.  If your child meets other criteria for placement into a gifted and talented program, but their teacher hasn’t provided their recommendation, a parent-teacher conference may help your child’s teacher better understand your child.  Gifted and talented programs shouldn’t be a reward for good behavior, but they are often treated as such.  

With that said, talking with the school about a “trial” period in the gifted program, assuming they’ve met other eligibility criteria, may make the school more amenable to foregoing the teacher recommendation. Listen to and acknowledge their concerns; meeting them halfway will often get you much closer to what you want.  For example, if your child isn’t willing to participate in the gifted and talented program and is exhibiting the same behavioral problems in the gifted program after x amount of time, be ready to re-evaluate the placement with the school.  It’s always necessary to consider that while a program may be labeled as “gifted,” and your child may be gifted, it isn’t necessarily a good fit for your child.  

Not being “in” the gifted and talented program doesn’t negate your child’s potential giftedness; it may, however, mean that you need to find other ways to support your gifted child.  This is also true for students in the local gifted and talented program; the standard GATE programs are often not sufficient to support the needs of gifted students, and they’re even less sufficient for students in the highly and profoundly gifted range.  Many gifted and talented programs are once or twice per week pull-out or after-school programs that do little to change the student’s day-to-day experience; these programs can help gifted students get a short reprieve from the general classroom and help connect them with other gifted students.  For some students, this is enough to make the school day more enjoyable; however, sometimes this isn’t enough as it doesn’t resolve the frustrations some gifted students experience.  They don’t satiate their never-ending curiosity, allow them to dig deeper into material, or move through the curriculum at a faster pace.  

Some schools have even fewer services.  If the school considers their accelerated math program to be their gifted program, and your child doesn’t need an accelerated math program, getting your child identified as gifted within the school may not get you anything. If the school differentiates for all students within the classroom, you may be better able to get your child’s needs met by talking with their classroom teacher.  A “gifted label” may not improve the degree to which the teacher differentiates for your child.  

While most states require schools to identify gifted students AND provide programming for those students, very few states require specific programs. Schools have a tremendous amount of lee-way in what they can call a gifted and talented program. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, allow for GIEPs, or Gifted Individualized Education Plans.  A GIEP can help you get services in writing for your child, but an IEP does not typically mean that your child’s entire school day will be individualized.  


 While schools can and should do more for gifted and talented students, public schools are not one-to-one education centers.  For a truly individualized education, you may need to seek out a microschool, explore homeschooling, or look into smaller private or charter schools near you.  Finding a good fit for your gifted and talented child can be difficult.  By definition, gifted and talented students are a minority population.  The tests and assessments used to identify gifted and talented students for in-school programs should meet the needs of the provided programming; this means that these programs are not necessarily a good fit for every gifted student.  Similarly, a special education program is not a good fit for every special needs student; some of these students need disability-specific programs or schools.  Unfortunately, while schools often pay for out-of-district placement to meet the needs of these students, this is not the reality for gifted and talented students. 


 Focusing on the end goal is key to determining what tests or assessments are appropriate for your child. In-school abilities tests such as the CogAT are great screeners, letting parents and teachers know which students may be suitable for a gifted and talented program regardless of their current grades or behavior in school.   An IQ test or neuropsychological evaluation may help you better understand your child if the school has not identified your child as gifted; simply confirming your suspicions that your child is gifted can help lead you in the right direction.  IQ scores may also be necessary documentation if you feel the in-school screener did a poor job assessing your child’s true abilities.  Achievement testing can help pinpoint your child’s current learning level, let you know what areas they may need help in, and indicate what areas they may be ready for more advanced curriculum.  


All in all, while you know your child best, the right tests and assessments can provide an objective measure of your child’s abilities and academic performance, helping you to advocate for your child and identify programs that best meet their individual needs. 

1 thought on “Navigating Gifted and Talented Identification and Programming”

  1. I am like your brother and would like to offer what his will be perspective / frank advice. It’s the opposite of a gift to have a very high IQ. He needs to remain in the normal class most of the school day. He MUST learn to consistently act less smart, occasionally lie, learn to act “cool”, learn to force himself to do really boring things, and accept most people are unwilling to change how they think. He will need these skills for the rest of his life. He’ll also probably be more aware injustices in the world and how willing many people are to make everyone’s life worse, to gain a little power. How most people believe the little lies they tell themselves about the world to feel in control. How fully understanding something and giving a percent likelihood it will work, makes people very uncomfortable(ignore details and give a confident yes or no).

    -People with big egos feel threatened if you slip up(pretending to have a regular IQ to fit in) and they learn how smart you are. They will believe you are just an a-hole, for trying to fit in.
    -In college, people may ask what you scored on a test because you were half asleep in the back of the room. They’re only asking because they assume you did worse and want to be the winner. They will get angry if you aced it.(Like it takes away from their achievement)
    -He will just figure out a lot of complex concepts by himself or understand formulas by looking at it for a minute. It makes it harder to merge that understanding with the arbitrary names/labels/methods the teacher uses.

    Having a very high IQ isn’t from a super powerful brain. It’s from using a regular brain more efficiently. Most people either don’t believe it’s possible or don’t feel a need to improve how their mind works/learns(like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). You have to objectively understand yourself and enjoy the process of understanding things. It’s purely a personal choice to actually change on a fundamental level, but probably becomes harder the longer you take a break from learning.

    Learning to parse and prioritize concepts from books/papers, as you read is useful. You don’t need a teacher to teach you. Most people think you learn more by cramming as much information as you can. But mentally editing and ignoring unnecessary things is the easiest way to learn. Similar to how highlighting parts of a book helps. Also the more you try learning different things, the better at learning you get.

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