Is the representation of ethnically diverse pupils in gifted and talented programs negatively affected by teacher attitudes and methods of identification used in schools?

By Kamil Trzebiatowski (2013)

for the University of the West of Scotland

There is ample evidence that certain ethnic minorities are underrepresented in gifted and talented programmes in countries where dominant language is English and the majority of residents are white, such as Great Britain, the United States and New Zealand (Ford, 2010; DfES, 2011; Keen, 2005). This literature review aims to shed light on whether the successful identification of pupils from ethnic minorities for gifted and talented programmes is negatively affected by teachers’ own views of ethnic minorities and their conceptions of giftedness, or by the methods of assessment for giftedness employed by schools. Paragraph 3.6 of Equality Act 2010’s Draft Code of Practice (2011) states that public authorities are required to have “due regard to the need to […] advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it” (p.34). Therefore, ensuring that minorities are represented fairly in gifted and talented programmes can be seen as required by Equality Act 2010. Before gifted education approaches such as enrichment and acceleration can be considered, all learners need to have equal access to such opportunities, hence the focus of this review is on whether teacher nominations for gifted programmes and assessments of giftedness are fair to ethnic minorities’ learners. I have been teaching and supporting bilingual, ethnically diverse learners of English as an Additional Language (EAL) in both England and Scotland for the last 5 years, thus my interest in the best possible provision for all culturally diverse learners stems naturally from my own professional experience. As a teacher of EAL in England between 2007 and 2010, I was involved in identifying gifted students amongst my ethnically diverse pupils. I have already written about the importance of teachers’ high expectations of non-white ethnic minority learners in mainstream education in the UK (Trzebiatowski, 2012); therefore, the current review extends the ideas of my previous research by exploring the practicalities involved in raising expectations of students from ethnic minorities.

In order to explore these issues in detail, this review examines the published research in relation to the following three questions:

(1)   Do the perceptions that certain white teachers hold of ethnic minorities and their conceptions of giftedness affect their ability to identify their ethnic minority pupils as gifted?

(2)   How effective are the ability tests used with ethnic minority pupils to identify them for gifted and talented programs?

(3)   How could the efficiency of identifying giftedness in ethnically diverse students be improved?

To be selected for the review, the articles, books and papers needed to be either entirely about the identification of gifted and talented pupils from ethnically diverse backgrounds or to have at least one large chapter, sub-section or statistical data devoted to it. In addition, I have considered research into the needs of specific groups of pupils, for instance Black pupils and pupils with EAL.  Aware that educational research can quickly become outdated because of fast-changing policies, I have only included research from the last 12 years (2000 – 2012). I have included research from the UK, United States and New Zealand. Whilst generalization between different countries’ educational systems is admittedly a limitation of the review, ethnic minorities are still underrepresented in gifted programmes in the aforementioned countries when compared to the representation of white indigenous majority (Snyder and Dillow, 2012; DfES, 2011; Bowd, 2003, in Chaffey, Halliwell and McCluskey, 2006; Riley et al., 2004), suggesting that the identification issues might have common ground. The discussion of the texts has been divided into three sections corresponding with the aforementioned questions: first, teachers’ perceptions potentially affecting the identification of ethnically diverse pupils is discussed, followed by the examination of the efficiency of assessment tests for gifted pupils in schools and, finally, attention will be paid to what has been suggested to improve the efficiency of identification of minority learners in terms of both teacher nomination and testing. In the conclusion, I will discuss the strength and limitations of the evidence and suggest improvements for further practice.


Do the perceptions that certain white teachers hold of ethnic minorities and their conceptions of giftedness affect their ability to identify their ethnic minority pupils as gifted?

Teachers play a very important role in the process of identifying pupils from both majority and minority groups for gifted and talented programmes. Milner and Ford (2007) call their role critical and claim that teachers who lack understanding of cultural and multicultural issues can contribute to underrepresentation of non-white pupils in gifted education. In their opinion, the resulting cultural misunderstandings and differences are central to the issue. Ford et al. (2005) support their view and claim that the mismatch between white American teachers and ethnically diverse pupils might lead to teachers’ deficit views of minority pupils or cultureblindness, both potentially resulting in underidentification of culturally diverse pupils. There is evidence for similar cultural ignorance in the UK: in Koshy et al.’s survey 65% of primary schools did not monitor their gifted and talented registers for ethnicity (2012). Baldwin (2004) also calls for a widening of the conception of intelligence by teachers and gifted education coordinators who determine the criteria for identifying pupils as gifted. Callahan (2005) states that teachers in the US have a very narrow conception of giftedness, one measured by traditional IQ and achievement tests. Callahan believes that children from ethnic minorities are usually not deemed by teachers to be capable of developing giftedness and as a result are never given opportunities to explore their gifts. McBee’s (2006) analysis of sources of referral for gifted programmes by race and socioeconomic status (United States) reveals that pupils from historically underrepresented groups, such as Black and Hispanic, are indeed undernominated. He states that if one believes that ability is spread evenly across races, this finding could indicate teachers’ racism, classism and cultural ignorance. If, however, one is a proponent of Distribution Theory (Gotttfredson, 2004), positing that abilities are not evenly distributed, then McBee suggests teachers might not be in the wrong and simply cannot nominate more than there actually are.

Moon and Brighton (2008) conducted a large scale study with 6,062 primary school teachers in the United States, investigating their conceptions of giftedness and their beliefs about how giftedness exhibits itself in primary age pupils. The authors conclude that the majority of teachers hold traditional views of who gifted and talented learners are, largely identifying gifted characteristics with possessing reasoning skills, vast knowledge and language skills, disadvantaging pupils who are English language learners (EAL in the UK), over a third did not believe that potential for giftedness is present in all social classes and difficult life circumstances seemed to be excluding pupils from being identified as gifted.

Elhoweris et al. (2005) investigated whether children’s ethnicity affects teachers’ referrals and recommendations for gifted programs in the United States. The 207 participating elementary teachers were randomly given one of three short case vignettes describing a gifted child (African American, European American and control group with no ethnicity information) and two questions were asked of them: (1) should their pupil be referred for evaluation and possibly placed on a gifted program, (2) should their pupil be placed in a gifted program? The researchers’ results show that placement of pupils was not affected by ethnicity, but the decision to refer children for evaluation was. In fact, teachers who received vignettes where no ethnicity was specified were more likely to refer those children for gifted programmes than those who received African American pupils, even though the information about the children was identical except for ethnic background.

Speirs Neumeister et al. (2007) performed a study with 27 experienced ethnic minority fourth-grade (United States) teachers to examine how they understand giftedness and identification procedures. Most of their teachers associated giftedness with self-motivation, learning coming fast, the ability to work at above average levels and creativity, yet few mentioned characteristics important in ethnic minorities such as oral tradition, movement or communalism, thus indicating that those teachers linked giftedness to productivity rather than potential. Despite teaching experience and previous training, most teachers did not appear to have an understanding of how giftedness might manifest itself in ethnic minorities. The teachers’ concerns with the identification of children already selected for a gifted and talented programme included their beliefs that pupils were high achievers but not actually gifted, that pupils’ difficult behaviour was problematic and that poor working habits can be signs of low motivation which leads to underachievement. The authors comment that this, yet again, indicates that productivity is equated with giftedness. They also add that 70% of the children for whom the teachers had concerns for were identified as gifted by scoring over 90% on other assessment tests.

Finally, de Wet and Gubbins (2011) report on results of a survey examining teachers’ core beliefs about the ability of culturally, linguistically and economically diverse (CLED) pupils and involving them in gifted programmes. The survey was completed by 308 teachers in different part of the United States. Over 90% of teachers believed that CLED pupils should be included in gifted programmes and that it would benefit others already participating in the programmes. Over half of the sample believed that CLED pupils express their abilities in ways different from White pupils speaking English and 60% thought that IQ tests do not reflect CLED pupils’ abilities accurately. Whilst the results seem to be painting a different picture of teachers’ perceptions, the authors acknowledge that the 308 surveys represent only 7.7% of all surveys originally sent out and vast majority of teachers chose not to complete it.


How effective are the ability tests used with ethnic minority pupils to identify them for gifted and talented programs?

Ford et al. (2002) state that the use of IQ tests by some American states tends to benefit white middle-class pupils but is detrimental those from ethnic minorities who could perform less well on paper tests or who might have different cognitive styles. Instead, they suggest that such children’s intelligence should be assessed by nonverbal tests. However, Matthews and Kirsch’s (2011) sample of 440 ELL pupils did not perform better on nonverbal tests than they did on verbal IQ tests. Still, Naglieri (2003) asserts that the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT) is an effective method of identification for gifted minority children and has strong correlations with achievement scores. A paper from the Westminster Institute of Education (2006) adds that removing verbal content from tests aims to overcome the culture bias issue and is an attempt to make them culture fair. Lewis (2001) insists that it has to be a part of the identification process for all gifted learners, echoed by Bevan-Brown (2009), who maintains that using tests that do not rely on language puts children from ethnic minorities on an equal footing with white majorities.

Lohman (2005), however, warns against relying solely on nonverbal tests and claims that stripping a test of observable verbal characteristics does not change the fact that abilities cannot be measured independently from culture. He states that culture is present in all human interactions with the environment and questions the assumption that images in non-verbal tests are equally understandable in various cultures. In another paper (2009), he claims that since not everything can be represented in pictures, such assessments underrepresent aspects of reasoning only conveyed by words. In line with his view that nonverbal ability tests are not sufficient, he also provides an example of how a combination of verbal, quantitative and nonverbal tests batteries accurately predicts the scores on the standardised Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) regardless of ethnicity (2005).

Haight (2004) reports on measures for identifying children as gifted and talented between 2001 and 2005 and uncovers a growing tendency to use the combination of Standard Assessment Tests, cognitive ability tests (CATs) and teacher judgement. In the UK, the commonly used CAT3 test consists of verbal, quantitative and nonverbal test batteries, with the latter claimed to be valuable in assessing reasoning abilities of pupils with poor English language skills (GL Assessment, 2008). It competes with the much shorter MidYIS, with some claiming to be too short to be reliable and others believe it is as reliable as CAT (Kirkman, 2002).In the United States, the nonverbal assessments in frequent operation are the Ravens Standard Progressive Matrices (RSPM) and the NNAT, both with a successful history of identifying children from diverse cultures (Baldwin, 2005).

This literature review has not uncovered any studies on the effectiveness of these tests in identifying giftedness in ethnic minority pupils in Great Britain; however, there are several studies from the United States on the subject. Lewis et al. (2007), for instance, have compared the effectiveness of the NNAT, RSPM and ITBS assessments in identifying ethnically diverse pupils as gifted by administering the tests to 175 grade 3 to 8 pupils and using archival ITBS, NNAT and RSPM scores. The ITBS (achievement test) identified far fewer ethnically diverse pupils than RSPM and NNAT, and the RSPM selected more gifted pupils than the NNAT. The authors suggest this might be due to the progressive nature of the Naglieri test, where pupils can learn from previous items, which may be akin to gifted children’s thinking processes. However, those findings have been questioned by Warne (2009), who asserts that since the NNAT and RSPM measure nonverbal intelligence and ITBS achievement, it is not fair to compare them and one should not expect to identify similar proportions of children through such an exercise.

In yet another American study, Lohman et al. (2008) involved 1,198 elementary children (including 40% ELL)  in a study comparing the effectiveness of identification of the gifted through the NNAT, RSPM and CogAT (which includes verbal, nonverbal and quantitative batteries) assessments. The obtained results in this study suggest that ELL learners are likely to receive low scores on the NNAT test whilst the RSPM over-identified non-ELL learners with only the CogAT showing normal distribution of scores for both groups. Lohman (2008) also reports on a 2007 study by Laing and Castellano, who compared the use of the RSPM, NNAT and CogAT with elementary children to identify academically gifted ELL (Hispanic) pupils, which found all of the ELL learners scoring considerably lower on all the three nonverbal tests than their English-proficient counterparts. Lohman concludes that, therefore, it is not right to say that nonverbal tests equalise the chances of children from different cultures and adds that the neither are demographic factors nor potential difficulties in understanding test directions responsible as the test directions were given in Spanish as well as in English.


How could the efficiency of identifying giftedness in ethnically diverse students be improved?

The literature contains several recommendations on how to improve the identification of ethnically diverse gifted and talented pupils. Speirs Neumeister et al. (2007) suggest that teachers consider their pupils’ cultural context when assessing their ability and should undergo professional development including training on underachievement in giftedness, ensuring they do not confuse giftedness with productivity. Milner and Ford (2007) add that teachers need to learn more about what giftedness actually entails and increase their cultural competence. Callahan (2005) believes that in order to expand teachers’ conceptions of giftedness they need to become involved in describing manifestations of talent across cultures, thus becoming owners of the conceptions.

Outside of calls for increasing teachers’ cultural awareness, Bevan-Brown (2009) would like to provide teachers with culture-specific checklists, facilitating the nomination of ethnic minority pupils, in place of ones where various cultures’ characteristics are grouped together, which might only reinforce cultural stereotypes. Bernal (2007) argues that a greater number of minority teachers in gifted programmes would promote positive attitudes in all teachers and would increase the identification of minority pupils.

In terms of the ability tests used to identify minority pupils for gifted programs, the promise of nonverbal tests has been recognized, allowing the demonstration of intelligence without the interference of language skills (Ford and Grantham, 2003). However, many hold the view that nonverbal tests should not be used on their own. Lewis et al. (2007) recommend the Ravens test to be considered as one of the methods used for selection. Lohman (2005) concurs and suggests that nonverbal and figural test batteries be used as auxiliary to verbal ones, which he sees as the strongest ability predictors for pupils from all ethnicities. They are seen as helpful in identifying children from poor backgrounds and with lower English language skills, but only when used together with other batteries (Lohman et al., 2008). Warne (2009) sees admitting children to gifted programmes on the basis of nonverbal tests alone as unwise since gifted programmes usually have heavy verbal content.

Ford and Grantham (2003) advise that schools do not justify the underrepresentation of culturally diverse children in their gifted programmes with their achievement test scores, but rather examine how their own policies and procedures might hinder such recruitment. Schools are advised to employ portfolios and authentic assessments (Callahan, 2005) as part of their identification processes, and Warne (2009) advocates the use of “front loading” (p.51) strategy: providing those ethnic minority pupils who scored just below the cut-off point with intensive programmes to raise their skills before they are admitted to gifted programmes.

Evaluation of the evidence and future recommendations

There appears to be a strong evidence for the claim that teachers’ deficit perceptions of minority pupils contributes to the underrepresentation in gifted programmes. Large numbers of teachers’ inability to imagine that bilingual pupils could be gifted (Moon and Brighton, 2008), referring less African American pupils for gifted programmes (Elhoweris et al., 2005) and equating giftedness with productivity (Speirs Neumeister et al., 2007) seem to speak for themselves. However, deWet and Gubbin’s study (2011) seems to indicate the opposite with 90% of their teachers believing that ethnically diverse pupils should be included in gifted programmes. Unfortunately, their survey’s low return rate is a very serious limitation and might not representative of the American teachers’ population. Another potential limitation is the apparent subjectivity and emotionality discernible in some of the articles reviewed: Bernal (2007) purports to know “the only acceptable reason” (p.28) for teachers to educate minority children and in Callahan’s words some children are “never given the opportunity to be creative” (p.99). Such sweeping statements appear unjustified and questionable. Whilst many agree that the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities amongst the gifted might be diminished through increasing teachers’ cultural competence, studies need to be undertaken into whether or not, after receiving such training, teachers agree that giftedness is potential. In other words, the effectiveness of CPD in giftedness ought to be evaluated and content of such programmes altered as necessary. In my experience, many teachers’ approaches to how they educate children are very personal and the alteration of their concept of giftedness might not be only a matter of gaining knowledge, but potentially changing their values. Therefore, training sessions need to be delivered with care and respect. Ideally, universities training teachers in the UK would deliver modules on giftedness when their students will often be younger and more impressionable.

Whilst there is some evidence of equal results obtained by IQ and nonverbal tests when identifying giftedness in minority pupils (Matthews and Kirsch, 2011), many favour using nonverbal tests (Ford et al., 2002; Naglieri, 2003; Bevan-Brown, 2009), claiming that the tests also correlate with achievement test scores. Others (Lohman et al., 2008; Lohman, 2008) have found the combination of verbal, quantitative and nonverbal tests (e.g. CogAT) the most beneficial to minority pupils. Most of the studies appear to be indicating that the inclusion of verbal assessment is crucial to the identification process. There appears to be a philosophical divide between those searching for one culture-fair test and those believing that one cannot ignore minority pupils’ verbal reasoning skills in the process of identifying them. In my own work as a teacher, I have been involved in assessing bilingual pupils and I found that assessing in all three areas: verbal, nonverbal and quantitative was the most pupil-friendly. Whilst visual data makes assessments far more accessible for such pupils, verbal assessments provide a more complete picture of a child’s abilities. Withdrawing verbal tests entirely would also make the assessment completely irrelevant to the child’s out-of-school world, where verbal information is the norm, and so it would be in a gifted programme if a pupil is identified for it. Considering the studies analysed, I believe that using only one form of assessment with minority pupils would disadvantage them and contribute to their underrepresentation.

This literature review has not been able to uncover any studies into the relationship of teachers’ perceptions and identification of minority pupils as gifted and talented in the British context. This is a serious gap in research and needs to be filled if the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in our gifted programmes is to improve. The situation is particularly dire in Scotland, where pupils are not placed on a gifted and talented register, but fall under a very broad category of children with Additional Support Needs. As a result, ethnicity is not monitored in any Scottish national statistics documents. In the name of racial equality, I suggest that such register is created in Scotland, allowing for racial representation amongst the gifted to be monitored.



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