How To: Fix Gifted Identification in Your Texas District!

High-quality gifted education services include opportunities for acceleration, grouping with other GT students, learning with depth and complexity, and affective support, all shown by research as important in enabling gifted students to reach their full potential.  For decades, however, inequitable identification practices have resulted in the nationwide underrepresentation of certain populations of students in gifted services, especially gifted Black and Hispanic students.  

The most serious problem in Texas GT education is the failure of many GT programs to identify and include all students who need services.  Gifted education researchers have identified several changes that can improve equity in identification, but too many districts have yet to implement these solutions. 

This is not just a problem for the students missing needed services; this should concern each family and each educator involved in gifted education. The Texas State Plan for the Education of Gifted/Talented Students requires that the population of each district’s gifted/talented program is “closely reflective” of the population of the total district and/or campus (Section 2.25).  When districts fail to identify and serve all students with above-level potential, our districts, economy, and society lose out – and more importantly, children are limited and harmed by our refusal to fix our education system.

As a parent or caregiver, what can YOU do to start to improve GT identification in your district?  For answers, please read below for interviews with a gifted education expert at Texas A&M University and two district GT Coordinators here in Texas.  

What the Research Says:  

Karen Rambo-Hernandez, Ph.D.,

Associate Professor,

Texas A&M University

Professional Advisor to the

Gifted Education Family Network

A nationally recognized expert in the field of gifted education, Dr. Karen Rambo-Hernandez is known for her research, published work, and presentations on equitable identification practices.  We are thrilled to be able to share her wisdom with GEFN families and supporters.

GEFN:  Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions and for your work in this field!  For parents who are ready to make an impact: what are the most important changes their districts should make immediately in order to improve equity in their gifted identification processes? 

Dr. Rambo-Hernandez:  Oh, good question. Before I talk about the most important changes I want to quickly bring up the idea of identifying for “what.” Identification should happen after we know how we are going to serve the kids— that way we can align identification procedures with the planned services. We sometimes get too caught up in the identification process and forget why we identify. We identify students so we can serve them. So, let’s flip the script. Let’s first determine what services we plan to offer—and lean into the context of the district to make some of these determinations. For example, I grew up in Baytown, Texas, where there is a huge refinery— that needs a steady stream of talented technicians. So, that school district might want to focus on developing STEM talent. Then when you are ready to identify students, choose assessments that are aligned to the services and then apply universal screening and local norms in the identification process. These two pieces will improve equity in identification.   

For universal screening, districts should use something that is already given. Schools regularly use standardized assessments to track student achievement, so use those. Don’t add another assessment, and don’t use something locally created (because validating those is quite involved). Then use the scores on that assessment to identify which students will be automatically referred for testing for gifted education services. For example, if your gifted program has the capacity to serve 10 students in a grade level, then the students with scores in the top 30 might be automatically referred. 

I think that it is important to set a lower bar for the universal screening than you expect to use for the identification phase (and take the suite of uniqueness that a kid brings with them).

For local norms, use the school’s context to determine who is most likely to benefit from gifted services. For example, a student who is performing at the 90th percentile (based on national standards) and is in a school with an average achievement at the 80th percentile— that student is likely having their academic needs met by the enacted curriculum at that school. But drop that same 90th percentile student into a school with an average achievement at the 30th percentile, the student is unlikely to have their academic needs met. One way to think about this is to remove cut-scores and employ a “number of seats” approach. If the school has the capacity to serve 15 students at each grade level, then the top 15 students should receive access regardless of a cut score. 

GEFN:   Can you share why it is so essential for districts to implement universal screening for gifted services?  What happens when districts rely solely on parent or teacher referrals for screening?  

Dr. Rambo-Hernandez:  Generally speaking, families differ in their comfort level navigating the school system. Some families are incredibly well-networked, comfortable navigating the education system, and know how to leverage systems to advocate for their student’s needs effectively. These families are typically from more privileged backgrounds—and are the ones who nominate their kids for gifted programs. These are the parents who are watching for the nomination announcements, who know how to advocate for their children, and are more comfortable navigating the school system. These are awesome things! Other parents are less comfortable navigating the education system. To make gifted services dependent on family’s comfort level navigating the system will systematically leave out students. This is simply unfair. To further complicate matters, teachers are well-meaning (believe me- I’m a big fan of teachers- I was one!), but like the rest of us they are susceptible to unconscious biases. Let’s not let that muddy the waters. All children need to have equal opportunities to be identified— and nomination advantages kids from more privileged backgrounds over others.

GEFN:  In one of your articles about local norms, you draw a comparison between local norms in gifted education and the way athletic or musical talent is typically supported in schools.  Can you help our readers understand how those identification practices are similar?

Dr. Rambo-Hernandez:   Ah, I love this analogy! Let’s take an athletic example. If a school wants to field a basketball team, they take the best athletes they have— they don’t set arbitrary cut offs (e.g., you have to run a mile in less than 6 minutes). They decide how many kids they need for the team (5 to play and 5 on the bench), and the best 10 basketball players make the team. Cut-offs just don’t exist. Schools vary in the talent present (and that even varies within a school over time). Schools take the basketball talent they have present in the school and develop it. It should be the same way with gifted services— take the top talent present at the school and develop it. Serve as many as the school can. I’ve heard schools say they don’t have any gifted students. That’s simply not true. We need to move the focus away from cut offs and toward serving talented kids. 

GEFN:  In the same article, you mention one of the objections raised to making these changes– the complaint that using local norms expands gifted programs to include students beyond those traditionally considered to be “truly” gifted– and some proposed solutions. Can you share some examples of how districts that are expanding services can continue to fully meet the needs of already-identified gifted students, through acceleration or differentiated gifted services?  

Dr. Rambo-Hernandez:  Can I start by saying I don’t like the term “gifted student”? It makes it seem like we are running around trying to find students who are inherently different from average students. Giftedness, talent, and ability run on a continuum. Let’s find the kids who would most benefit from gifted services— those who are least likely to have their academic needs met by the enacted curriculum and instruction in each school. Those services provided should be challenging and stretching. 

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system (I’m smiling by the way), once you know which kids are going to be served, the academic needs of those kids are likely to be quite dissimilar (and will range by campus). For example, some of my work has shown that anywhere from 10-40% of kids start the academic year above grade level (the estimate ranges based on the subject, grade-level, and assessment referenced). For example, using NWEA MAP data for mathematics, about 14% of kids have already mastered 5th grade mathematics before the year starts- and of that 14%, 2% need 6th grade content, 5% need 7th grade content, 4% need eighth grade content, and 2% are ready for high school material (the numbers don’t add up because of rounding in case you checked). But let that sink in. If we identified all of those students as needing advanced academic services, the services would need to span at least 4 grade levels to adequately meet their academic needs. So, rather than expect a pull-out program to be able to serve all of the students, let’s leverage the classes that already exist— let’s use subject acceleration (or grade acceleration if the student is advanced across the board) to address their academic needs. 

GEFN:   When these improvements are proposed, what other objections should we expect district leaders and/or local GT families to raise?  What advice would you give to advocates as they work to address these objections and to convince district leaders to follow current research recommendations?

Dr. Rambo-Hernandez:  Ah, buses. One of the things you’ll need to figure out if you’re going to move toward implementing subject acceleration is transportation. Sometimes campuses are close together (so kids can walk) – that makes it easier. Also, there is a common misconception that students who are accelerated are more likely to have social problems. This just doesn’t play out in the research. Generally, there are no differences observed in the social-emotional well-being of students who accelerated when compared to similar ability students who did not accelerate, but there are huge gains academically for those who accelerated. Also, going back to my research that shows large proportions of students are already above grade level, if we actually paid attention to those numbers, a large proportion of students would accelerate. Then, the accelerated students would be with many others their age, which makes the social-emotional argument moot. 

GEFN:  As gifted equity advocates work to raise awareness about this issue, are there some key points they should share with other GT parents and with district leaders?  Why should every parent or caregiver of an identified GT student in Texas care about the problem of underrepresentation in local gifted programs?

Dr. Rambo-Hernandez:  Well, if I can be blunt, if the kids receiving gifted education services don’t look close to a cross-section of the kids in the school, then gifted education programs are going to go away. So, if you want your kid to continue to have services, you need to care about the problem of underrepresentation. Gifted education has a proverbial black eye— that we are addressing but haven’t solved— historically, students from underrepresented backgrounds have been, well, underrepresented in gifted education. Also, parents should care because it is the right thing to do. Racism is real. Do what you can to address it. Use gifted education as a way to address racism— not to perpetuate it. Further, gifted education should be part of a suite of services provided to meet the needs of all students. There are kids in every school who need more. Let’s use gifted services to help meet those needs.

Making the Changes:  

Raine Maggio, M.S.

Past Gifted and Advanced

Academics Coordinator,

Current Director of Enrichment,

Round Rock ISD

Monica Simonds, M.Ed.

Director, Advanced Learning

Programs and Services,

Richardson ISD

Several districts in Texas have successfully taken steps to improve GT identification practices, and two suburban districts in particular have recently received recognition for their changes.  We are grateful to be able to speak with Ms. Raine Maggio and Ms. Monica Simonds about their successes.

GEFN:   Thank you for your work to improve equity in gifted services!  Can you please share a little about the improvements you made to gifted identification processes in your district?  How long did it take for key district decision-makers to decide to support your changes? 

Ms. Simonds:  I began in this position in the summer of 2010 spending the first year or so learning about current practices and analyzing data.  The changes we made came in three main transitions.  The first occurred when we expanded designated gifted services into secondary grades.  Once we had GT-sheltered services and/or courses in all grade levels, we focused on elementary identification practices.  Data indicated that our population of students identified for gifted services was not reflective of the district as a whole even though there had been efforts in place that predated my joining the team.  We implemented Multiple Pathways to identification that incorporated universal screening at second and sixth grades along with several levels of norming based on age (national norms), experience (Emerging Bilingual, Economically Disadvantaged, or both), and environment (campus).  Now that we have those pieces in place, the final time of innovation is upon us as we move into a season of programming evaluation both for evaluation and service design.  

It is imperative that students identified for services receive the appropriate instructional interventions and we continue to build on our current tiered services.  We identify students first for services in general that include Total School Cluster Grouping with a GT-trained teacher, an Advanced Learning Teacher (“ALT”) providing needed support, and the ALT providing professional learning to the classroom teachers.  Some students need more instructional challenge and the ALT pulls them out for two hours a week.  Finally, some students need far more than can be provided in a classroom so they are sheltered at a central campus for full-time gifted instruction.

Once we had identified the need and the research-based approaches to addressing the identification issues, we were fortunate that district senior leadership was in place to support our innovations.

Ms. Maggio:  We took one year to form a committee of principals, counselors, and gifted specialists to gather information about current practices and suggestions for new systems. Based on those recommendations, the following year we updated our assessments to online administration which allowed us more flexibility in our ability to to make accommodations. We make every attempt to allow testing accommodations that are written in IEPs and 504 plans. This helped us to better identify students in our twice exceptional population. We also implemented the use of local norms in our processes. Being a large school district, we divided our population into 3 groups based on similar numbers of students receiving free and reduced lunch. After giving a universal screener to all 2nd grade students, we used that data to create local norms for each of those 3 groups comparing students of the same age, experience, and environment together. Additionally, we created three pathways to identification to allow campus committees to include additional quantitative and qualitative data for consideration when needed. Lastly, we removed achievement testing as part of identification in the early grades in order to not only identify students performing remarkably high, but also those with the POTENTIAL of performing remarkably high. This allowed us to make a tiered service model to encourage talent development. 

GEFN:   Which underrepresented student populations in your district have benefited most from these changes?  Do you have plans or hopes for future improvements to GT identification in your district?

Ms. Simonds:  First, Emerging Bilingual and Economically Disadvantaged student groups as a whole are being identified at double, triple, or more the rate that they were previously identified.  Now that we have emerged from the complications with testing students created by extreme absences and higher than usual mobility rates, we will review the identification data for each campus and use it to guide next steps.  At this point, the next pathway to identification that we may add is to move the district-level Emerging Bilingual and Economically Disadvantaged student groups to the campus level where there is a large enough grouping of students to do so with reliability.

Ms. Maggio:  The changes in our identification allowed us to identify many more students at Title 1 schools. Prior to the changes, there were 13 elementary schools (out of 34) who identified less than 5% of their population, within 3 years the number of Title 1 schools below 5% identified was 4. 

As far as hopes for improvement, I’m personally no longer in the position to oversee gifted services in my district, but I’m certain that the district will continue to improve those processes. 

GEFN:   What obstacles did you face in making changes to follow current recommendations in gifted identification, and how did you and your district work through those obstacles? 

Ms. Simonds:   It was tempting to try to do it all at one time.  However, it’s important to phase in any innovations to avoid implementation fatigue in the organization.  We were fortunate that the only obstacle is time to implement any change, to ensure services are effective, and to provide professional learning for classroom teachers.  Ultimately, competing priorities are our biggest obstacle, most of which are not from any one entity and are not intended to be obstacles.  An example is the state-mandated in-school tutoring that can impede on our services or take planning time away from decision makers.  However, ultimately, we have worked through any challenges with teamwork and a continued focus on the four questions of the Professional Learning Community of which number four is “what will you do when a student has already learned” what you are teaching.

Ms. Maggio:  A major obstacle in the beginning was going from all paper pencil testing to 100% online testing. Each assessment was delivered in a different system and training everyone on multiple systems all at one time was definitely a challenge. There was a huge learning curve, but once we got through one cycle the commitment was well worth it. 

We also had to train all the members of the campus screening and placement committees to look at data in a new way to make sure processes were being followed across the district. We now have an online training so that any new member can get training as needed. 

GEFN:   Have you received any criticism about these improvements from local families or educators, and if so, how have you helped them to understand the “why” behind following current recommendations?  

Ms. Maggio:  The biggest obstacle was probably helping staff and parents understand local norms. Since there are different target scores at different schools that took some education for people to understand. We changed the focus from “your child is gifted” to “your child shows a need for gifted services.” By showing people the goal in the state plan for the gifted, we were able to show how identification should be about outliers who are identified by comparing students of the same age, experience, and environment. 

Ms. Simonds:   In the beginning, some of our families shared concerns about moving from our students in grades four through six getting a full day of gifted pullout services to pullout being only two hours a week.  It was difficult for them to imagine the classroom teacher taking on the responsibility of differentiating for the high-ability learners.  However, that differentiation should have been or was occurring already so we emphasized the ALT (Advanced Learning Teacher) providing support.  It’s a work in progress as we have new teachers who come to our district without a gifted background.  Our ALTs have adjusted their schedules to prioritize being in the PLC meetings to support the planning for all learners and we have remained steadfast in our journey to being a Depth and Complexity district requiring all elementary and any secondary advanced course instructors to complete their GT update with choice of Depth and Complexity, job-embedded learning.

GEFN:   What advice would you give to families who would like to support similar changes, and who are ready to approach GT educators, administrators, and school board members with their requests?

Ms. Maggio:  One, go into the conversation willing to be a part of the solution that is for a greater good and not just an isolated situation for your child. Two, acknowledge that change takes time and offer some resources if the district does not have knowledge of these practices. Dr. Scott Peters offers an excellent resource for those exploring equity in identification. You can find it here.

Ms. Simonds:   Three things immediately come to mind.  The first is to learn about the district priorities and the data that went into determining what those were.  Include learning about the gifted identification data.  Marry that with what the state is mandating, and possibly not funding, that the district is trying to address.**  Ensure you have a good understanding of school finance.  It’s complicated and it changes every two years.  Second, learn about what the Texas State Plan for the Education of Gifted and Talented Students provides as mandates for compliance.  Finally, get involved.  Join district committees or focus groups to learn about what is currently in place or being planned and look for ways to connect that to the changes you are seeking.  Watching board meetings is a great way to do all of this.

An overarching theme should be that the educators and board in your school or district love your children and want to do the best for them.  Positive presupposition goes a long way to build a collaborative relationship.  

Finally, don’t hesitate to reach out to others to be your thought partner.  We are all in this together.

The Gifted Education Family Network wishes to extend sincere thanks to Dr. Rambo-Hernandez, Ms. Maggio, and Ms. Simonds for taking the time to share their insight with GEFN members.  We encourage our members to visit our discussion group to engage in conversations about how we can work together to improve equity and diversity in the GT services needed by advanced Texas students in all populations.

** Editor’s note: in recent years, changes in earmarked state GT funding have caused confusion for Texas districts. GT advocates must advocate for sufficient local funding and must also ensure that district leaders understand their responsibility to fund GT programs that follow state regulatory requirements. 

Further Reading

Preprint, shared with author permission:  Local Norms for Gifted and Talented Student Identification: Everything you Need to Know (2021).

Preprint, shared with author permission:  Who gets identified? The Consequences of Variability in Teacher Ratings and Combination Rules for Determining Eligibility for Gifted Services for Young Children (accepted for publication, 2023). Journal for the Education of the Gifted. 

A&M Blog: Why Are Some Students Forgotten in Gifted Education?

Equity in Gifted/Talented Education: TEA Website Resource

GEFN News: Raine Maggio, GEFN Gifted Administrator of 2022 GT Excellence Award

Dallas Morning News: ‘Finally finding our babies’: How Richardson schools are making their gifted classes more diverse (2021)

National Association for Gifted Children: Is There a Gifted Gap? New Report Makes Clear the Need for Universal Screening of Gifted Children (2018) 

National Association for Gifted Children: Local norms improve equity in gifted identification (2019)

Content is provided for general information purposes only and does not constitute and should not be relied on as legal advice. Viewpoints expressed through interviews are those of individual interviewees and not necessarily held by or endorsed by GEFN. 

Copyright 2023 Gifted Education Family Network, interview and formatting by Emily Villamar-Robbins.

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