Monday, 5 November 2012

Differentiating Between Gifted and High Achieving Students

The title of this post may seem, at least at first glance, to be somewhat of a non-issue to many (most?) people, be they parents, educators or the general public. And yet, if we take the time to do this, we might just find that we are suddenly better able to understand and meet the needs of a large number of students.

Unfortunately, our society is driven by test scores. Because of this, IQ scores are sometimes viewed as value statements rather than descriptors. More useful than the number is a look into the individual subtest scores in order to determine a student's relative strengths and weaknesses in order to better meet their educational needs. Achievement and IQ are separate aspects of an individual and only through a combination of the two are students able to achieve true educational success, that is, to continue to learn and grow as individuals throughout life.

Truly Gifted Students

Let me start with another idea that may seem contradictory: many gifted students underachieve, fail, or drop out of school. They are more vulnerable to mental illness than the general population. Their needs can be, and are often, overlooked. There is a tendency to misdiagnose associated behaviours as social defiant or ADD/ ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder with or without hyperactivity), among other things. While it is true that one can be both gifted and have another such designation, it is often the case that the diagnosis is made through misunderstanding.

It is important to clarify what we mean by "gifted" in terms of both population and needs. Some places call all students who perform above average gifted; some rely on teacher reports, and others rely on a battery of standardized tests administered by a registered clinical psychologist to determine an IQ score, or when this is not possible due to subtest variation, a series of scores. [IQ tests are made up of several sections, called "subtests" which are made up of a series of tasks that test different cognitive functions]

Even when the students are properly tested, there is a discrepancy as to what magic number or numbers will be the "cutoff" between "gifted" and "non-gifted" populations. In some areas, this score can be as low as 120, and in others it is as high as 140. When you consider that an "average" score is 100, and a score of 70 is considered developmentally delayed (aka mentally retarded), the difficulties with the difference of 20 points in determining a gifted label become readily apparent.

For the sake of argument, I will use the number of 130; while recognizing that it is an imperfect designation.
In fact, the general consensus in psychological circles seems to be that 130-140 = gifted; 140-150 = highly gifted; 150-160 = exceptionally gifted and 160+ = profoundly gifted.

Let's think about a person who is profoundly gifted. This may be quite difficult for most of us, because a person with an IQ that high is literally one in a million. They are as different from "average" as someone who is low-functioning and will require lifelong assistance is on the other side of the distribution curve. Their needs are clearly very different than someone who is of average intelligence (90-110) or even highly intelligent or gifted.

I will try and put it another way to make my point here.

One definition for determining a learning disability is a discrepancy between scores of a subtest such that a low score is three or more standard deviations lower than the other scores.[It is important to note that there is a lack of consensus among professionals regarding a specific definition of learning disabilities and also of learning disorders] By this definition, a profoundly gifted student could have a learning disability in an area and still score in the gifted range in that area. Is this a problem for them? Possibly, if it affects their ability to communicate thoughts and ideas, or to remember them effectively. 
Even a student who is highly gifted might have a learning disability that is masked by their apparent "average" ability in that area. 
Students whose discrepancies are thus missed are at risk of low self-concept, frustration, and other emotional and academic problems.

In fact, even without discrepancies in different areas, gifted students have different needs than other students, particularly in the areas of emotional and social development, study skills, and executive functioning. It is not uncommon for these students to reach the university level without ever having had to study in order to do well. Since they have never had to learn this and possibly other executive functioning skills, they have not had any experience with them and can find themselves suddenly overwhelmed. They need to be specifically taught how to study and manage their time. Gifted students are often observant and reflective, and can have anxiety over local and global issues that their peers are not likely to understand. A program that is truly designed for gifted students should incorporate meaningful ways to address these issues that are unique to this population.

In terms of academics, each student will need their own IEP (Individualized Education Plan) which addresses their strengths and weaknesses. Always strengths before weaknesses! These students know they are different and they need to find ways to celebrate those differences in a positive way. It is important that these students learn how to cope with failure, which can only come when they are challenged at an appropriate level and supported emotionally so that they learn how to take risks and work towards a goal. Letting gifted students coast through known or comfortable material does these students a grave disservice and must be discouraged in order for these students to thrive, not only in school but also in life. 

Gifted students, particularly those with the highest IQs, need opportunities to meet and work together through conferences, exchanges, ability grouping where possible, etc. Mentoring with specialists and professionals in various fields of study can form an important part of their middle and high school education.

High Achievers

We all know the stereotype--the kids with their hands up, who hand in their assignments early with double the word-count, who do their homework and reach beyond it to understand the material inside-out. They are the Hermione Grangers of the world. These are kids who are average to above average in ability but who are for one reason or another driven to achieve. These kids know how to study because it is a way of life for them. They are organized and diligent, and they understand that their achievement is linked to hard work because they have learned this through experience.
Frustrations these kids may have often come from group work with less motivated students, delays in feedback from teachers, and material that repeats itself. 
These students are often the "do-ers" and "joiners" in the school, and some may enjoy leadership within and outside of the school setting. 
Academic enrichment for these students should include just that--enrichment. Guest speakers, field trips, and cluster grouping for project work, as well as opportunities for students to share their work with others will meet these students' needs much better than the gifted programming I describe above. Peer tutoring is also an option for these students, but should be a choice and not a substitute for enrichment, or a punishment. Students should not be given the job/punishment/perk of marking other students' work. This is the teacher's job, and it is the teacher's job because all students deserve a degree confidentiality.

There are, of course, students who belong to both groups--students who are highly motivated and gifted. I would argue that those students should have access to the options I outlined in the "truly gifted" section, mainly because I believe that those are the most crucial skills and issues that need to be addressed for any gifted student. The IEP should identify and aid in further meeting their needs.

When we envision programming for gifted students, we often think of the options I have described for the high-achieving group. In this way, we set ourselves up for many of the problems that riddle gifted education, particularly regarding those related to demographics. Between sexism, racism and elitism, gifted programming has many feeling that it is somehow an unfair advantage provided for a chosen few. It is no wonder then that many educators treat is as a sort of reward for accomplishments rather than a necessary means to meet student needs.

Only when we can be honest about IQs and the "gifted" label can we progress to the point where we can distinguish between the two and break through the barriers of misunderstanding in order to better meet student needs.


  1. Could you clarify how you are proposing to make a distinction between "high achievers" and "truly gifted" students? Are you suggesting a certain IQ cutoff? Identifying via stereotype, ie checking to see if they are "do-ers" or "joiners"? Looking for signs of mental illness?

    What honesty about IQ are you referring to? If it's your assertion that a profoundly gifted kid with a 160 is "as different" from the norm as a kid with a 40 IQ, that is simply false. IQ scores are not measures of "amount of difference", they are only measures of rarity. Profoundly gifted kids are as rare as kids in a semi-vegetative state.

  2. Part of the challenge here is exactly that--how do we make this distinction? I would argue that we need to look at the test scores, but just importantly, we need to look at individual students and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. From here, an IEP can be developed in order to meet that student's needs. It may be that a student's needs include aspects of both of these (enrichment and acceleration/conference opportunities etc.).

    I would not advocate a strict cutoff based on IQ alone; it is important that all aspects of the student be considered. Feedback from teachers, parents, other relevant people in the student's life and the student his/herself should all be considered when making these decisions.

    There are many cases, however, when the numbers are extreme, and it is obvious that the student will have needs that are much different than those of the general population. These needs not only include academics, but also need to address issues that arise when there is asynchronous development (when the social and/or emotional side of a person develops at a different rate than their intellect). We need to be open to and aware of indicators aside from academic tests that might point to students who fit into this category. These students may be difficult to find as they develop different ways of coping with academics that do not have any relevance to them.

    Another point I hope I am making is that the IQ score of a person is not a value statement. It is simply an indicator of the differences in cognitive functioning between a person and the general population for which the tests were normed. This difference may indicate the need for different approaches to that student's education. It is important though, that all subtests be considered, along with additional tests where indicated, anecdotal reports, medical history etc. in order to gain a clear picture of the student and his or her needs.

    1. Thank you for your reply. I guess if we are using IEP's and tailoring things to student needs, I'm not sure why we need to make a distinction between gifted and high achieving students, especially since this is something of a false dichotomy anyway. As you pointed out, a student can be both gifted and high achieving. I think attempting to make distinctions between gifted students and high achievers is problematic for two reasons:

      1. We set people up to think of high achievers as not gifted. I have heard people refer to a student as "not gifted, just high achieving." The word "just" tends to sneak in there...

      2. We set people up to think that gifted kids are underachievers and problem students. Some are. But that is not what makes them gifted!

      I agree that tailoring education to the student is the way to go, especially for any unusual student, high achieving, gifted, or otherwise.

      Here is a good article with nuanced descriptions of some common profiles for gifted students. I would love to see educators get more information about this because it not only helps them identify gifted students, it can give important insight into how they may be trying to cope and the obstacles they encounter.

  3. An "absolute value" calculation from the mid-IQ score of 100 is an interesting concept -- and quite frankly, the biggest argument used in advocacy efforts to fund gifted education in some type of relational measure as we fund special education. Receiving gifted education services is definitely not some "reward" act provided for a chosen few, but instead -- in my opinion -- is indeed a necessity just as special education services are a necessity. Defining the degree of necessity is where it gets sticky -- and as appears to be the case in our current educational system, we tend to define varying degrees based on numerical "scores" of some type of assessment tool. Thus, the notion of an "IEP" whereby individual needs are determined is a good starting point -- the question arises who (and how) determines and assesses idenitfied needs in an IEP. Thank you for the blog post and the response. Ben Hebebrand

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  5. I always had this problem when going to school and then my parents would contact our mentor about the 'giftness'. Actually we had a small group of either gifted or high-achieving kids. And then suddenly my grades weren't that high anymore. So my father, who didn't understand about the whole concept of underachievers just thought it was stupid. And I guess I kinda believed him. I didn't get high grades anymore because it didn't interest me to get high grades. That might be the difference. High-achievers do.

    And over-all the idea of school didn't interest me anymore because it was all about a fixed concept of lessons, homework and years to go through.

    There wasn't any flexibility and it wasn't very personal either. I can understand that, I mean the whole concept of schools is that you put a bunch of kids in a classroom with a teacher, with the emphasis on 'a bunch of kids'. Personal teaching costs time, thus money. People that don't have that money are screwed...but the schools-for-gifted-kids didn't even exist in MY time (and I'm only 25). Still, even one of my favourite teachers had the idea that gifted kids should proof themselves first...and he loved the guy that had everything, was social, good in sports AND was smart. So it didn't matter, I just didn't have the motivation anymore, unless the lessons were about something interesting.

  6. It's a shame that this school environment tend to gear toward high IQ students. My two girls who had been lable as high achiever , had to take honor class instead of class for gifted. They miss out in taking class that would be more challenge for their abilities. As a Mom who has to jump through hoops to get my children to be in an class elite to the gifted is sad. One of my girl is writing a novel at eleven year old and the other are composing music. They are twin with different ability and personality. Yet they both gets good grade in school and their teacher loves them because they are well behave children. It's my duty as a Mom to teach them good attitude toward their peer and teachers. Therefor they do not have emotional problem like high IQ students. This country is too busy lable students instead of allowing the best whose show result to get the best materials. Other country just pick the best and reward those that show result and achieve to the max potential . As a Mom whose see my kid wanting more and asking why they can't take classes that gear for them and the high IQ kid fail their classes. It is heart drenching to tell them they are not gifted through the eyes of the school . All I can do is encourage them to reach high and never give up. The school need to chage and reward the best , show what reality in the real worldis like and stop cuddle those who does not stride high.

    1. Gifted classes are for compensation, not reward. They are not for praise and bragging rights as much as they are for making sure the children's emotional, social, and intellectual needs are being met. That is important, for many gifted children never finish high school due to emotional problems and lack of motivation, friends, interests, etc.
      Again, gifted classes do not reward gifted students. They are compensation for special needs.

  7. Most important skill that every student must learn is leadership. Leadership provides with the opportunity to lead. Especially it is important for college students to enroll themselves in leadership programs, as it helps them to learn and lead during their college years. Students go thorough complete transformation by attending such programs. It develop many attributes to their personality like it helps them to gain confidence, development of communication skills, expansion of their network, getting management skills, development of problem solving skill, getting recognized, enhance resume and many more. Mr Chris Salamone formerly served as a faculty member at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, and served as a leadership curriculum adviser at The University of Central Oklahoma. Chris Salamone works to improve the lives of young people around the world through his many philanthropic endeavors. With his dedication and efforts in successful law practices, he founded LeadAmerida, a notable youth educational program that is aimed at high-achieving students in the United States and internationally. To this end, he functions as chairman of the Lead America Foundation and extends a considerable amount of financial support to fund the education of 300 children in Haiti.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I'd like to add to this that leadership includes the ability to work with others in a team environment, including the ability to follow and collaborate as much as it does to "lead" in a more traditional sense.