Fostering Equitable Access to Gifted Services for English Learners Through a Balance of Measures and Program Options (2-10-16)

Despite English Learners being the fastest growing population of students in the United States their representation in gifted and talented education continues to lag behind all other types of learners, including other underserved populations. This raises an important challenge for equity, meriting attention.

In The Beginning

As a bit of context for this challenge, culturally and linguistically diverse populations have been underrepresented from the beginning of research in the field of gifted and talented (GT), emerging from Sir Francis Galton’s 1869 Heredity of Genius assertion that intellectual eminence was the domain of the white, upper class. This myth persisted for decades, despite such efforts as Howard Knox’s work in 1912-1916 to overcome the limitations of intelligence testing at Ellis Island due to immigrants’ language barriers, potential trauma from the emigration process, and unfamiliarity with local social conventions. However, Louis Terman’s (1925) research in developing the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales continued to perpetuate the myth given his sample of primarily white, affluent males. In addressing the below-average IQ scores for the few Italian, Portuguese, and Mexican individuals in his sample, Terman concluded that he could not say how much of their below-average scores was due to what he categorized as their “language handicap,” but neither did he explore its implication for a broader view of giftedness.

A broader view of giftedness began to slowly emerge decades later. Congress’ 1974 Equal Educational Opportunity Act (EEOA) provided a more inclusive view by emphasizing the importance of valuing and fostering academic potential in all peoples, and 1993’s National Excellence: A Case for Developing America’s Talent (US Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1993) formally acknowledging “outstanding talents are present in children and youth from all cultural groups.” Recognition of the existence of GT English Learners (EL) was an essential step, but realizing a commensurate representation of EL in GT programming has been hindered by the challenges of identifying such a diverse population of learners.

A Diverse Population

EL students are a highly diverse population. They speak over 350 different languages and represent various immigration statuses, socio-economic levels, prior educational opportunities, parental education, and cultural views on intelligence, achievement, and giftedness. All considerations represent potential challenges for identification, which should begin as soon as a student arrives in a school and as early as GT screening begins in general. However, a student who has just arrived in a school may not have not yet acquired an understanding of the local culture or developed oral English proficiency, which can take 3-5 years, or academic English proficiency, which can take 4-7 years. Waiting for students to develop oral and academic English proficiency, then, would cause GT EL to lose years of potential opportunities for further growth. Beyond language, students’ and families’ level of acculturation and cultural view of giftedness and achievement can affect the identification process. A continuum of quantitative and qualitative measures can foster a thoughtful, informed, and inclusive approach.

A Balance

There are a myriad of available assessment measures and approaches, and it is helpful to consider them along a continuum of quantitative and qualitative measures. Quantitative measures include ability, achievement, and creativity tests. Some may be administered to groups of students via pencil and paper or computer, while others must be administered one-on-one. All yield numerical results and may provide beneficial data when a student demonstrates heretofore unrecognized ability, achievement, or creativity, especially when a measure is universally administered to all students. However, these assessments often rely on English proficiency, although they may be available in select second languages, such as Spanish. Nonverbal tests represent efforts in the field to eliminate the language barrier and be culture-free, but research reveals that no measure can ever be truly nonverbal or culture-free given the inherently verbal-based processes and cultural contexts involved.

Qualitative measures, then, provide a complementary means to address social and cultural contexts. Such measures include referrals/nominations for screening, observations of behaviors, checklists of GT EL characteristics, and behavioral ratings scales filled out by staff, parents/guardians, community members, or the student him/herself. Additionally, a team can review performance tasks or portfolios of student work, either from the student’s current school placement or previous educational setting to uncover achievement or potential. Beyond the continuum of quantitative and qualitative measures, the past decades have seen the emergence of program options to prepare and identify students.


Preparation programs represent one type of program option related to GT EL identification. Designed for young learners, a preparation program is one in which staff nurtures talent in either all students or those from underserved populations, such as ELs by providing them with a foundation of critical thinking, creative problem solving, or advanced academic rigor in preparation for formal GT identification in a higher grade. Rather than simply looking for manifest ability, preparation programs are designed to support young students in developing latent abilities through a variety of talent development methods. Similarly, adaptations to the Response to Intervention (RTI) model employ a strength-based approach with increasing levels of gifted interventions in response to student potential to foster identification of underrepresented populations including GT EL or specifically for GT EL. Both preparation and RTI programs benefit from key stakeholders understanding GT EL characteristics and working collaboratively to meet their needs.


A collaborative approach is key to establishing a thoughtful, responsive, and inclusive pathway for GT EL identification. Oakland & Rossen (2005) assert that a referral/nomination process should be one that “first informs, then educates, and then encourages teachers, parents, and students to become engaged.” Extending that approach to all facets of GT EL identification through culturally and linguistically sensitive collaboration on the purpose of gifted education, the identification processes, and gifted characteristics and behaviors of GT ELs (both manifest and latent) will support an informed selection of measures and procedures to foster equitable access to gifted services for English learners.

Susan Dulong Langley is a member of the NAGC Board of Directors.

Editor's note: This is part of a series of blog posts that is collaboratively published every Wednesday by the National Association for Gifted Children and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Each post in the series exists both here on on the NAGC Blog and Fordham's Flypaper.


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