They read a book quietly under their desks, pester the teacher for extra credit, or, perhaps, they simply check out and act up.
Every classroom has a few overachievers who perform above their grade level and don’t feel challenged by the status quo. A new report suggests they are surprisingly common — in some cases, nearly half of all students in a given grade.
“The start of this was a little embarrassing,” says Matthew Makel, who researches academically gifted children for Duke University’s Talent Identification Program.
One day, a philanthropist asked one of Makel’s colleagues, Jonathan Plucker at Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth, what should have been a simple question, “How many students score above grade level on standardized tests each year?”
They couldn’t answer. So Makel, Plucker and a few fellow researchers took a closer look at the data. Their results have just been published as a policy brief (not a peer-reviewed study) by Johns Hopkins.
The authors studied statewide results on the Smarter Balanced tests in Wisconsin and California; statewide results on the Florida Standards Assessment; data from 33 states on the NWEA MAP test; and data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” The first two are high-stakes accountability tests, while the MAP test is usually given twice a year to benchmark student progress. The NAEP is a low-stakes national data collection.
Makel and his co-authors found that, on the NWEA, 35 percent of beginning fifth-graders were already scoring at levels you might only expect by the end of the year. And, on the NAEP, the top 25 percent of fourth-graders outscored the bottom 25 percent of eighth-graders every year but one — for 26 years straight.
On the state tests, the researchers took “grade level” to mean hitting the third-highest of four scoring levels — below basic, basic, proficient and advanced — for the gradeabove the grade being tested. In every case, the researchers found large numbers of overachievers. These are students who, by spring, meet or exceed the grade level standard for the following year.
According to the report:
- “At the end of the 2014–2015 school year, between 25 percent and 45 percent of Wisconsin students scored at or above the next grade level in the spring of their current grade.” For example, 38 percent of third-graders already knew enough fourth-grade math to pass.
- “Between 11 percent and 37 percent of California students scored at or above the next grade level in the spring of their current grade level.” For example, 34 percent of eighth-graders would have passed ninth-grade math.
- “Between 30 percent and 44 percent of Florida students scored at or above the next grade level in the spring of their current grade levels.” For example, 42 percent of seventh-graders would have passed eighth-grade reading.
That Florida figure isn’t news to Lynda Hayes, director of the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School in Gainesville, Fla. The public school serves as a lab school for the University of Florida and accepts students by lottery from 31 Florida cities.
“I think aiming for grade-level achievement for all students is still an important goal for K-12 schools — but not to the detriment of growth and achievement for all students, including those that are achieving at the highest levels,” Hayes says. “We have had extended conversations at our school about enriching and deepening learning rather than simply accelerating students through grade-level courses.”
Ultimately, this meant big changes. In the past few years, P.K. Yonge has opened a new, designed-from-scratch physical space that allows for clustering teachers in large teams to give them extra time for collaboration, training and prep.
Today, the elementary school has three multi-age groups, each with 108-132 students and seven teachers: K-first grade, second-third grade and fourth-fifth grade. Students are grouped by ability and subject in ways that change throughout the year. In rare cases, they may be placed with other students who are two or more years older.
Andrew Ho says this report from Makel and his colleagues isn’t nearly as surprising as it might seem. Ho is a student measurement expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has a word for the findings: “obviousness.” He points out that large numbers of students will score both above and below the cutoff of a standardized test.
It’s also important to note that a score on a single test is not synonymous with being ready to achieve at a given grade level — academically, socially or emotionally. And the effective distance between grade levels is smaller in middle and high school than it is in elementary school.
However, for Makel the key question remains: If there are so many overachievers, why isn’t more being done nationally to make sure they are being challenged appropriately, regardless of age?
A large, national survey of districts from 2013 showed that two-thirds of middle schools offered acceleration by subject. Just under half offered acceleration by grade, but it’s unclear how many students took advantage of those programs. Four out of five districts reported that state laws did not define “gifted and talented.”
“There may be schools that do respond to these scores, and many students may be getting subject-specific or whole-grade acceleration. But there’s no national policy, and many states and schools don’t have policies on it either,” says Makel.
Hayes compares traditional school design — both the physical spaces and systems — to an egg crate. She says, as long as teachers are forced to work in isolation with limited time for teamwork, professional development and lesson preparation, “achieving what is possible in response to learner variability will be impossible.”
Further complicating matters, Hayes says, are the many bureaucratic rules and traditions enforced at the school, district and state level, including teacher evaluations based on student test scores, extensive federal reporting requirements, and curricula that “tell teachers what to teach and when and for how long no matter who the students are in front of them.”
Dallas Dance, the superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, struggles with these forces on a districtwide scale. This fall, he proposed a policy change to how his schools handle gifted and talented students.
Previously, students had to be nominated for testing by a teacher or parent and were selected in third and fifth grades only. Now, Baltimore County will move to a universal screening process. And, rather than limit enrichment and acceleration to a predetermined group, Dance wants to allow for more flexible grouping, so that a student who needs “advanced academics” in just one subject or for a period of time can get it.
“We want to make sure that, in every area, we can extend, accelerate or enrich on an ongoing basis,” Dance says. He agrees with the Johns Hopkins findings that there are large numbers of undiscovered overachievers who could benefit from these resources. The change in policy, though, has proved controversial, Dance says, and it’s currently under review by the district’s board of education.
Teaching Tips with Marianne:
April 2016 | Volume 58 | Number 4
Designing Better Teacher Interview Questions: Six Strategies for Challenging Gifted Learners
Gifted students—you may or may not spot them in your classroom. They may be highly visible, like the high achievers or straight-A students. But they may also be among those students who don’t finish their work (it’s never perfect enough), who zone out or act out in class (they’re bored), or who test poorly because they overthink things (“Hmmm, this answer might be true in this case, but it might not be true in that case”).
Some schools and districts have substantial resources to identify and support giftedness, wherever it shows up. Some offer pull-out programs. Others offer cluster grouping, in which gifted students are grouped in specific classes at each grade level.
Dina Brulles, director of gifted education in the Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, Ariz., believes gifted students need less grade-level work, faster-paced lessons, deeper and more advanced content, and opportunities to work with other gifted students. They also require a different kind of interaction with the teacher, who must be less of a “sage on the stage” and more of a “guide on the side.”
But First, the Big Picture
M. René Islas, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), notes one persistent challenge to gifted education—a lack of uniformity in programming. A recent NAGC study found that 19 states don’t monitor gifted programs at the local level, only seven require their districts to report on gifted student achievement, and fewer than half report on the race and ethnicity of their gifted students (minorities are significantly underrepresented in gifted programs, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights).
But there are promising signals as well, explains Islas. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states and districts to track the progress of their highest-achieving students and allows schools to use Title I funds to identify and support gifted students. Plus, the law opens up the possibility for schools to use computer-adaptive assessments to recognize student mastery of content above grade level.
Then there are the challenges and opportunities at the school level. With the following strategies, teachers can tend to the complex needs of their high-ability students in the heterogeneous classroom.
1. Offer the Most Difficult First
“Gifted students don’t need to do 25 problems in math when they can do the five most difficult first to demonstrate mastery,” says Brulles. She offers this opportunity to all students, not just those identified as gifted. Students who successfully complete the five problems are excused from that night’s homework. If classwork is involved, the teacher simply needs to have a few extension activities on hand—tasks that carry the concept to the next level—for students to work on quietly while others complete the regular assignment.
“Most Difficult First” is one manageable way for teachers to compact the curriculum for their high-ability students. With compacting, students get to “throw away” the part of the curriculum that they already know, while receiving full credit for those competencies. This frees up students to work on more challenging content.
2. Pre-Test for Volunteers
Let’s say a teacher is teaching two-digit multiplication. He might do some direct instruction for 10 minutes, then offer students the end-of-chapter test, saying, “If you get 90 percent or higher, you won’t have to do the homework or practice work. You’ll have different work to do.” According to Brulles, some gifted students will take this option, whereas others may decide, “I don’t know this; I need the practice work.” Again, as in Most Difficult First, this strategy requires having extension work for students who test out of the material.
3. Prepare to Take It Up
Susan Flores, a 2nd grade teacher in Paradise Valley, meets a range of student abilities by using the standard as her baseline. “My desk serves as a staging area. I have several piles of activities there that take a concept up or down.”
For example, when the class is working on the distributive property in math, those “piles” might include differentiated worksheets, word problems, and task cards. Depending on how students grasp the concept, Flores can either reteach, offer practice, or enrich.
Flores also uses “choice boards.” In math, she might offer nine ways that students can demonstrate learning of multiplication. “Students can [use] one of their iPad apps or create a game. They jump in where they want to jump in,” she notes.
All students in Flores’s class can choose whether they want to take their learning to the next level. “I don’t say, ‘Because you’re gifted, you get choice, and because you’re not gifted, you don’t.'” Optional challenge work is available to anyone who wants to try it.
4. Speak to Student Interests
Janice Mak, a gifted cluster teacher and 7th and 8th grade STEM teacher in Paradise Valley, gives students a menu of options in her computer science class. After stu-dents learn the basics of programming—perhaps through an online course from Stanford University or work with Google CS First clubs—they work in teams to create a robot. Students choose the level of complexity, from designing dogs that bark to building miniature disco rooms in which a record plays and lights flash.
Students can also tailor a project to their interests. In a module on architecture, some students designed a playground for Egyptian students using Legos, Build with Chrome, or Minecraft. One student opted instead to recreate the White House using Minecraft.
The Ignite presentation format offers another way for Mak to differentiate work on the basis of student interest. The presenter has exactly 5 minutes and 20 slides, which auto-advance every 15 seconds, to discuss a topic of interest (aligned to the unit). This activity allows students to share their passion with their peers, be it nanotechnology and its role in medicine, the physics of roller coasters, or the latest advances in virtual reality.
According to education expert Jenny Grant Rankin, knowing a student’s emotional intensities—what Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski called “overexcitabilities”—is also key to teaching gifted students. Dabrowski identified five areas of sensitivity that are strongly related to giftedness: psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational, and emotional.
Overexcitabilities will often appear as quirks, such as compulsive talking or organizing, heightened sensitivity to smells or tastes, insatiable curiosity, or daydreaming. Knowing a student’s overexcitabilities can help teachers shape engaging—and personalized—learning experiences. An imaginational student will benefit from an assignment that he’s free to complete in a unique way. An intellectual student will prefer to investigate why certain areas of the world struggle with starvation rather than simply listing those areas. Although we tend to see overexcitabilities negatively, they are often accompanied by great creativity, imagination, and drive.
5. Enable Gifted Students to Work Together
According to NAGC, research shows that enabling gifted students to work together in groups boosts their academic achievement and benefits other students in the classroom, as well. When gifted students work together, they challenge themselves in unexpected ways. They bounce ideas off one another and take a peer’s idea to a new place. They also learn that as smart as they are, they, too, must exert effort with challenging content—and that they’ll sometimes fail along the way.
That said, gifted kids need to work both in and out of their group. “As adults, we have to be able to work with everyone,” explains Flores, “and gifted students might not learn this if they’re always separated out.” Teachers can provide multiple opportunities for heterogeneous groupings through Think-Pair-Shares, Clock Buddies, and Season Teams.
6. Plan for Tiered Learning
This approach relies on planning lessons or units at different tiers of difficulty. But does this require teachers to add to their already full plates?
“I don’t see it as doing one more thing; I see it as being more strategic,” explains Mak. Teachers have to plan for their lessons, so why not develop deep and complex activities for high-ability students at the same time? This one way of planning—providing work at the entry, advanced, and extension levels or at varying Depth of Knowledge Levels—offers a multiplicity of ways to learn. It may take more time in the planning stage, but it is ultimately more efficient because bored students aren’t acting out or zoning out in class—they’ve got challenging work to do—and struggling students are getting support. Once teachers create these tiered resources, they can use them again and again.
Author Carol Ann Tomlinson advocates teaching up—”a practice of first planning a lesson that’s challenging for high-end learners and then differentiating for other learners by providing supports that enable them to access that more sophisticated learning opportunity.” It replaces “the more common practice of planning for mid-range performers, then extending that lesson for advanced students and watering it down for others.” This approach, Tomlinson says, challenges advanced learners more than trying to pump up a “middling” idea—and serves other students better as well.
“It’s Just Good Teaching”
All students have the right to learn something new every day, whether they are in regular classrooms or in special education, language acquisition, or gifted programs. And every student will benefit from being pulled up to go beyond the curriculum at times.
But as Tomlinson points out, “Learning should be joyful or at least satisfying, rather than just hard.”
Is this challenging for educators? Sure. But according to Flores, “Any good teacher can do these things well. It’s just good teaching.”