Understanding Our Gifted
Open Space Communications, Inc.
This article by Julia Osborn distinguishes between "testing" and "assessment." The author then focuses on some of the important and unique issues involved when assessing gifted children's cognitive, academic, and social/emotional functioning. This short article is one of the definitive articles in the field on the assessment of gifted children.
*This is a slightly expanded version of an article that first appeared in Understanding Our Gifted is the first in a series of three articles about the processes of parenting an exceptionally gifted child.
Assessing gifted children is similar to and different from assessing other types of children. Though areas to be assessed are similar for all, for gifted children, the assessment techniques and tests require special characteristics. While most professionals are trained to assess many kinds of children, few are specifically trained to assess in this particular area. The general perception is that these youngsters, with abilities and strengths in many areas, have no special needs, educational or otherwise, that merit serious clinical attention. For this reason, it is important that parents who suspect that their child may be gifted search for a professional with experience in working with this population. Knowledge about these practices can help parents with this search.
Testing versus assessment.
These two activities are frequently discussed together and criticized together, when, in fact, they are quite different. As a psychologist, I have done both and will continue to do both for very different reasons. Testing, or the individual administration of a standardized test, means presenting test items according to very specific pre-set directions and following an exact verbal script. The results are usually reported as numbers. This is a limited activity and the information that it provides is similarly limited. Assessment, on the other hand, includes standardized test administration but goes well beyond it. Good test administration should be the same from person to person; that is, it should be independent of personal experience and personal viewpoints. Assessment, especially clinical assessment, is highly dependent upon training, theoretical orientation, personal experience, research knowledge and clinical experience. In good test administration, the person administering the test should not have a major impact on the test results; in assessment, the person doing the assessment does have a major impact on the final result. For these reasons, assessing children is part science and part art. The science part is straightforward and largely concerns testing. The art part is difficult to describe, difficult to teach and essential.
Age of child.
All tests and assessments vary with the age of the child, as we expect that children will do different things at different ages. In general, we chose to use an instrument that has been standardized with children of a specific age without regard to their ability levels. Yet, gifted children will accomplish a variety of things earlier than other children or will accomplish them at a higher level than their age peers will. Assessment must adapt to this reality. There are two basic strategies for making this adaptation; the easiest is to use a test standardized for older children (this is the out of level testing that is used in the talent searches). For example, most children do not read before entering school, and therefore most assessments of preschool children do not routinely include reading. Some gifted preschool children do read early, and an adequate assessment of them should include measures of reading. One way to accomplish this is to give an above age or grade level of the Gates MacGinitie Reading Test. A second strategy is to informally look for behaviors and skills that usually appear in older children. For example, an informal strategy for reading assessment is to take an inventory of the books that the child has read in the 6 months prior to the assessment. The most important step is not to make assumptions about the child's level of accomplishment based upon age or upon grade, but rather select test materials that will permit a young child to demonstrate high level skills in a variety of areas.
Each child, gifted or not, has his or her own history. When a child is tested, for example, in the admission process for private schools or selective programs, parent information is often not collected. In assessment, however, the first step is to interview the parents to obtain the child's history in the areas of general development, education, health, social interactions and family interactions. As a parent, you should be wary of any professional who plans to evaluate a child without taking a developmental history.
The careful collection of information from parents, via report forms, checklists and most importantly direct interviewing, becomes the foundation upon which the individual nature of the assessment is built. Parents, speaking to a professional for the first time, should feel free to say that they think that their child may be gifted. They should then hear a question like-"Why do you think that your child may be gifted? What does your child do that suggests this?" thus opening the door for a frank and complete history of the child's development and behavior. As with any interview technique, the value of the information obtained depends upon the skill of the interviewer and upon the biases of the interviewer. Several remarkable studies have had a particular impact on my thinking about the developmental pathways of gifted children and I want to direct your attention to those studies (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5).
In the academic world, there are debates about the meaning and the value of intelligence tests in general; at parent and school meetings, I have been asked many questions about intelligence tests and the meanings of different score patterns. After working with hundreds of children, my own view of the value of intelligence tests is this: when I administer an individual intelligence test, I gain necessary but not sufficient information about an individual child. Among the most commonly used tests for assessing the gifted are the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children-Third Edition (WISC-III), the Stanford-Binet: Fourth Edition (SB:IV) and, yes, the Stanford-Binet: Form L-M (SB:LM). I use all three at different times. For gifted children, I have frequently observed that a score on one intelligence test cannot be converted to a score on another intelligence by means of any formula. These tests provide information that is not interchangeable and the scores that they generate are not interchangeable.
If I think that a gifted child may have a learning disability, I use the WISC-VI based upon my clinical experience and because there is a body of useful research on this application (6). If I am interested in a school age child's high-level math reasoning or visual-spatial reasoning, I use the SB: IV as I have had numerous experiences with young elementary school children who demonstrate skill in subtests normally reserved for older children, especially the subtests of number series, equation building, paper folding and matrices. However, both the WISC-III and the SB: IV have a serious general limitation due to their low ceiling. The tests were designed to be most useful for children who are close to average and are less useful for children who are far from average (e.g. retarded or gifted). In fact, the original creator of the Weschler tests, David Weschler stated that "My scales are meant for people who score between 70 and 130. They are clinical tests." When reminded that his tests were commonly used by psychologists for such children, he said, of the psychologists, "Then that is their misfortune. It's not what I tell them to do, and it's not what a good clinician ought to do. They should know better."(7, p xiv).
One word about the SB:LM is in order. Many people mistakenly believe that the publication of the SB:IV meant that the SB: LM should not and could not be used. That is not true. There are serious and well documented reasons for continuing to use this test (3,8). I especially like the SB: LM for its very high level verbal reasoning items, which, in my experience, tap an ability to think, verbally and mathematically, in a complex way. However, there is a serious limitation in using this test, namely, the reluctance of school personnel to accept the test results. Several years ago, there was a lively debate about the relative merits of the SB: LM and the SB: IV in the identification of gifted children, with some favoring the use of the SB: IV (8) and others the use of the SB: LM (9). Putting the issue to the clinical test, by administering both tests to the same children, I have found that with the SB: IV, it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to distinguish between highly and exceptionally intellectually gifted children. To put it simply, if I want to know whether or not an individual child fits the characteristics of an exceptionally gifted child, as presented by Dr. Mirica Gross (3) in her extensive research, then I must administer the SB: LM. The Riverside Publishing Company reports plans to incorporate some of the best features of the SB: LM into the formation of a new test, the Stanford-Binet: Fifth Edition. However, it will be years until that new test is ready, and has proven to be useful for gifted students.
One of the clear ways in which gifted children differ from other children is in the ease and speed with which they master academic skills. The more extreme the child is in intellectual ability, the more likely it is that the child will not fit in well with a standard curriculum. For that reason, I find that it is critical to evaluate the child's abilities to decode words, comprehend printed passages, understand math processes, complete math calculations, produce legible print or script and to write varied types of material. Gifted children, in the early school years, vary widely in the degree to which these skills are developed. Of the children I have seen, highly and exceptionally gifted children, often, but not always, have some school skills that are much more advanced than the skills of more moderately gifted children. These children, in turn, have some skills that are much more advanced than the skills of average children.
To convincingly document extreme skill development in any of these areas, it is essential to use an individual educational assessment that has a very high ceiling as schools often do not possess or obtain this information. This occurs for several reasons: first, many schools do not routinely test all their elementary children until they reach a pre-established grade, which can be as late as 3rd or 4th grade, and, second, the types of standardized, normed, group-administered tests that are given in schools to classrooms of children often have such low ceilings that they cannot distinguish well among the children in the top 3 to 5 percentiles.
Individual assessment can be adapted to document the differening academic levels of children in the top 3 percentiles on standardized tests. The talent searches, which are available for 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders are very important tools in documenting highly developed math and verbal aptitude. For elementary children in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades, a good assessment practice is the use of individual tests that go up to a 12th grade level of difficulty. By using such tests, there is no pre-conceived ceiling that is imposed on a child by the nature of the test construction. There are several individually administered academic tests with high ceilings, for example, the Woodcock-Johnson and the Peabody Individual Achievement Test. I prefer the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement-II for early elementary gifted students, as it includes what, I feel, is a more realistic assessment of reading.
In the KTEA-II, the child is required to read and demonstrate comprehension of printed paragraphs. In many other tests, the child's reading comprehension skill is measured by merely filling in a missing word in a sentence. In my experience this less demanding task, the cloze procedure, can lead to inflated and inaccurate scores of reading comprehension.
Gifted children often possess abilities in areas that are well outside the realm of standardized tests; they may possess talents in music, art, creative writing, scientific thinking and group leadership, to name only a few. Using these abilities, the children may complete activities or undertake projects that no one their age may have imagined or attempted. In order to understand these qualities and to begin to appreciate the importance of these activities in the lives of these children, I have had to be creative in my assessment strategies. Certainly, portfolios of art and writing are useful, as are videotapes of performances and activities. Constructions of all types have made an appearance in my office; some of them can be captured with a Polaroid camera. Children's efforts in these areas often represent hours of committed labor and may indicate unusual and emerging life interests. As these activities are often undertaken outside of school, parent information about these projects is vital. It is often equally important to brainstorm with parents about the ways they can encourage and support their children in these activities. There is no simple, standardized, normed method for accomplishing this; consequently, this is not a testing activity but it is an essential assessment activity.
The role of intuition.
This topic, which could also be called clinical judgment, is perhaps, the single most important one, in discussing the assessment of children and the one that is the most difficult to describe. To a substantial extent it is based upon reading the non-verbal communication from the child. This aspect of the communication includes many factors: the child's body position, body movements, use of gestures, eye glances, tone of voice, intonation and various approach and avoidance behaviors. Reading the non-verbal communication is a complex process and one that provides vital information about the child. The more children I evaluate, the more I depend upon this aspect of assessment. While it is important throughout the entire process, I am most aware of it during the first minutes after meeting a child. Mostly, it resembles a sensation of waiting, of alert waiting for the child. At those moments, I try to set aside all I have heard or read about the child and simply respond to what occurs. To do this successfully, I have to concentrate fully and I often respond in ways that I have not preplanned. To a great extent, I depend upon the initial impressions, feelings and ideas that occur to me in the moments after I meet the child.
Children chose to bring in photographs, trophies, books, stuffed toys, construction projects, art or other projects; responding enthusiastically is easy and welcome. Other children, sometimes the ones who bring in nothing, make it plain that they would rather be anywhere else in the world. At times, I find myself saying almost before I say hello, "You look like you’d rather be anywhere but here." Children are usually grateful for the acceptance it implies. Other children, painfully shy, look like they wish they could just disappear. Sitting down in the waiting room, chatting with their parents, inviting their parents into the testing room allows the child to minimize the interaction with me. With my attention directed toward their parents, they feel less pressure to interact and they will often ease themselves into the conversation, as they are able. For children who are quiet or hesitant to speak, allowing periods of silence and offering non-verbal toys (origami, puzzles, markers and paper) helps ease the transition into the assessment process. Other children need to have a brief introductory session and then return, later, to a now somewhat familiar place for longer, more focused assessment sessions. While some of these variations can be anticipated in advance by discussions with parents, others are, essentially, spontaneous.
The most useful preparatory technique is to tell the parents to help the child select something important or well loved to bring to the session. Allowing them to choose gives them an initial sense that their needs and opinions will be valued and it provides an immediate and engaging topic for conversation. Also importantly, this activity gives the child some small area of control over a process that will be largely outside of his or her control. Finally, it communicates the message that, at least part of, the assessment will be about what they like and value.
My subjective experiences.
I have found that assessing gifted children, is a qualitatively different experience than the assessment of other types of children. First of all, it takes 1 ½ to 2 times longer to administer high ceiling tests to gifted children than to average children. The more extreme the ability of the child, the longer the session. The reasons for this are straightforward. Gifted children generally answer more questions correctly, produce more elaborated answers, ask more detailed questions and become more deeply engaged in testing than do other children. For all these reasons, it can take along time to reach a test ceiling or the end of a subtest. The tendency of gifted children to be more positive and engaged during the testing means that they are more difficult to disengage and that they are more reluctant to leave at the end. Breaks and stopping points must, more often, be imposed on gifted children. Also, the interpersonal dynamics in the testing sessions are more complex. I often have the sensation that I am being closely observed and that the nuances of what I say and do are being noted. In short, I find that I need to be particularly focused, alert and engaged when I am assessing gifted children. I also need to offer more explanations for why I do what I do. Experience has taught me that if I do not offer explanations, the children will invent their own, sometime quite incorrect explanations, of what I am doing or thinking.
All assessment processes involve providing information to parents and often to teachers. In the case of gifted children, I find that their parents ask more questions, expect more fully developed answers and appreciate references to relatively complex reading material. Teachers and parents alike often have to cope with feelings of uncertainty about how best to respond to the child's needs, and questions of best educational practices are constantly raised. Teachers and parents are often appreciative of straightforward information on practices like subject matter acceleration, grade skipping, radical acceleration and home schooling. Frequently, there is an urgently felt need to solve educational problems of fit and there is a great need for information on a variety of successful techniques. Obtaining and sharing this information is an important part of the assessment process. In many fascinating ways, the growth of the Internet has given parents quick access to each other and to information of varying quality. The resourcefulness and persistence of parents constantly impresses me as they seek appropriate adaptations for their children in the schools. My role, at that stage, is to provide links between the parent, the school and the body of knowledge about promising educational practices. In this regard, materials supplied by the ERIC system (10) and the work of the National Research Center on the Gifted and the Talented (11) has been invaluable and I encourage parents to obtain materials from both sources. It is my opinion that no assessment is complete until some meaningful changes have taken place in the daily life of the child, however, it is often the parents who must see to it that those changes take place.