Worth a second look: Teacher ‘gifted and talented’ identification in elementary school

Worth a second look: Teacher 'gifted and talented' identification in elementary schoolJust because teachers are not infallible doesn’t mean their judgments shouldn’t carry a lot of weight in identifying gifted and talented elementary-grade students, says a new study in the Journal of Advanced Academics.

The study found that 3rd-grade students nominated or identified by their 2nd-grade teachers as having “top learning potential” in math outperformed peers with similar reasoning abilities who were not nominated but who also participated in a challenging math curriculum intervention.

Teachers may perceive student qualities beyond cognitive factors that are predictive of student success with challenging mathematics, the researchers write.

The design of the study avoids the “Pygmalion effect” because student performance was measured the year after teacher nominations and when students had been assigned to new teachers, according to the authors.

For the study, 2nd-grade teachers from 81 classrooms and 43 schools across the country were asked to identify 1/4 of their students as having high learning potential the year before nationwide implementation of a 16-week curriculum of challenging mathematics for 3rd-graders. A total of 2,000 heterogeneously grouped students of all ability levels participated in the study (sample size was 1,413 students). Researchers controlled for students’ composite reasoning scores and pretest scores when comparing achievement after the 16-week intervention.

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Measures included:

  • students’ composite age scores on the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT)
  • pretest scores on both standardized and researcher-developed unit tests
  • nomination status
  • post-test scores on both standardized and researcher-developed unit tests

Psychosocial factors in predicting achievement

In adolescents and young adults, teacher recommendations for advanced coursework are often based on perceptions of students’ self-efficacy, motivation, demographic characteristics and traits such as self-discipline and positive attributional style. Much less is known about the psychosocial factors that predict academic success in elementary students, but teachers have daily experience with qualities that may be potential indicators such as following directions, maintaining attention to tasks and doing independent work.

Teachers’ abilities to identify students’ academic potential have been viewed somewhat negatively in recent decades due to concerns that teachers’ judgments about individual students are flawed or no more than “second guesses.” While not suggesting that teachers should play the gatekeeper role in identifying gifted and talented students, the researchers believe teacher nominations should carry equal weight with other screening measures such as IQ tests.

Too often teacher nominations have been used as an initial screen to reduce the number of students who take expensive individual IQ tests. Teachers could be asked to identify children who are capable of highly challenging work rather than “predicting a chimerical ‘truly gifted’ criterion,” the researchers write.

Administrators and classroom teachers rate teacher nominations as highly effective approximately twice as often as they rate standardized tests highly effective, according to previous research.

“Part of this perceived effectiveness may be due to teachers’ ability to capture aspects of giftedness such as creativity, leadership, and artistic talent that are not adequately measured with intelligence or achievement tests,” according to the study.

“Teachers See What Ability Scores Cannot: Predicting Student Performance With Challenging Mathematics,” by Jennifer Foreman and E. Jean Gubbins, Journal of Advanced Academics, 2015, Volume 26, Number 1, pp. 5-23.

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