Gifted Underachievers: Some Schools, despite Having Active District GATE Programs, Fail to Identify Those Gifted Students Who Are English Learners or from Low-Income Families

By Birdsall, Peter; Correa, Lou | Leadership, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview

Gifted Underachievers: Some Schools, despite Having Active District GATE Programs, Fail to Identify Those Gifted Students Who Are English Learners or from Low-Income Families


Birdsall, Peter, Correa, Lou, Leadership


In school districts throughout California, teachers and parents have the ability to refer children to be identified and served through the Gifted and Talented Education program. The reality is that in some districts, some schools have referred no children at all, while others are active in making such referrals.

This problem takes on added meaning when the schools making no referrals serve predominantly students from low-income families, or those who are English learners. The principal of one such school was asked about this pattern and responded, "We don't have any gifted children at this school."

Unfortunately, these incidents are not hypothetical cases. Members of the board of directors of the California Association for the Gifted say these stories have actually happened to them, in recent years, here in the state of California.

In one case, the principal allowed a "pilot" project to screen students using an assessment that was not based on English fluency. Twenty-five students were identified as gifted. In another case, after all third-graders were screened, teachers expressed surprise at the abilities demonstrated by students they had felt were "low-performing."

One boy came to a school with a preliminary diagnosis from another school in the same district of mild retardation. The student had a history of poor grades, was disorganized in his schoolwork and had terrible handwriting. But the teacher recognized some traits that are common in gifted students and arranged for a for-real assessment. The student scored so high that he received a scholarship from Johns Hopkins to participate in its summer institute, and he is now excelling in science, math and computers.

What's at stake?

The incidents described above are real examples from several school districts in this state. The patterns are clear. Despite active GATE programs in the district, there are schools, marked by high percentages of students who are English learners or from low-income families, from which virtually no students are referred for GATE.

California is estimated to have almost half a million gifted students in its public schools. Given an appropriate education, these students can grow up to become leading scientists, mathematicians, artists and writers. Unfortunately, for many of these students, their gifts represent a lost opportunity.

Some people believe that GATE programs need not be a priority because gifted children will excel regardless of the education they receive. That clearly is not the case. What would have happened to the student now excelling in science and math if he had remained labeled "mildly retarded"?

Some children have the advantage of educated, economically successful families that will expose them to museums, books, parks and travel. Other children, however, live in families that can't afford these experiences. The parents in many of these families may not know how to advocate for their children.

This problem is particularly acute in schools that tend to have large percentages of low-income and/or English learners. In a school Faced with the pressures of Program Improvement status, how much attention can school staff typically give to the needs of gifted students? How likely is it that those parents are the active, well-informed parents who will force the school to pay attention?

The cost of under-identification

Unfortunately, research shows that when gifted students are required to work at the same pace as their non-gifted classmates, their achievement levels drop dramatically. Not only can the boredom of this situation lead gifted students to become underachievers, they may become behavior problems in the classroom.

A recent report by the Gates Foundation, "A Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts," surveyed high school dropouts about their reasons for dropping out. About 47 percent responded that a major factor in their decision was that classes were not interesting. …

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