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Identifying Gifted Students: A Practical Guide

reviewed by Saiying Steenbergen-Hu & Eric Calvert - March 25, 2019

coverTitle: Identifying Gifted Students: A Practical Guide
Author(s): Susan K. Johnsen (Ed.)
Publisher: Prufrock Press, Austin
ISBN: 1618215876, Pages: 175, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

The field of K-12 gifted education finds itself grappling with two key contemporary challenges. First, the field is undergoing a period of external critique and internal self-examination regarding the severe underrepresentation of minority and low-income students identified for participation in gifted education programs. Second, gifted education programs are feeling the impact of test-based accountability as school rating models in many states undergo significant redesign in the transition from the era of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to the era of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). As federal and state policies move away from a nearly exclusive focus on basic proficiency to a focus on growth, gifted educators face new accountability for ensuring that gifted students, many of whom far exceed minimum proficiency thresholds from the first day of school, continue to grow academically. These realities are driving schools to search for assessment tools and strategies that allow more diverse populations of students to be identified and to move from one-time identification to ongoing assessment that allows gifted students to be matched with appropriate interventions on a more dynamic basis.

These challenges and trends influenced revisions to K-12 programming standards from the National Association for Gifted Children and the Council For Exceptional Children. Identifying Gifted Students: A Practical Guide (3rd Edition), edited by Susan Johnsen, is the latest edition of this popular handbook, updated to integrate these revised standards.


Chapter One, written by the editor, provides an introductory overview of conceptualizations of giftedness commonly reflected in state policies and local programming models. Using brief student vignettes, Johnsen raises some of the theoretical and practical issues that practitioners must consider in choosing and interpreting assessments while illustrating the complexity of designing systems that identify both demonstrated ability as well as nascent potential, particularly within economically and culturally diverse populations.

Chapter Two, penned by Gail Ryser, provides a basic introduction to quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods approaches to assessment, including brief descriptions of test categories. Chapter Three, also authored by Ryser, subsequently takes a somewhat deeper dive into issues of bias in assessment and potential barriers to identification that may contribute to the underrepresentation of students of color, low-income students, linguistically diverse students, and “twice exceptional” students (gifted students with disabilities) in gifted education programs. The chapter also defines key terms commonly used by psychologists and test publishers to describe the technical characteristics of assessments.

Chapter Four, by Jennifer Robins and Jennifer Jolly, provides a useful reference, compiling brief descriptions of commercial tests commonly used in gifted identification, including abilities and characteristics assessed, basic norming information, reliability and validity statistics, and publisher contact information. Organized tables providing “at-a-glance” aggregations of test information will be time-saving references for practitioners otherwise facing the prospect of gathering these essential metrics from individual test technical manuals.

Chapters Five and Six, also authored by Johnsen, are the book’s most substantive and practical. Chapter Five describes approaches to identifying relevant and useful sources of data and processes, analyzing them holistically, and ultimately making selection decisions that reflect programming goals and local priorities. Johnsen also provides a set of process design guidelines that may be used either in the conceptualization stage of developing identification processes from scratch or as broad litmus tests for reflecting on extant practices. Building on these guidelines, Chapter Six recommends an approach to critically evaluate local identification criteria procedures for improvement through the purposeful use of the NAGC and CEC-TAG standards for assessment, which are excerpted in the book’s appendices.


While the Third Edition of Identifying Gifted Students brings this useful text up-to-date with respect to NAGC and CEC standards, it could be further improved on four fronts as we elaborate below. First, future editions can add a discussion of the value and limitations of tests commonly administered to nearly all students in schools, including assessments used in state school accountability systems and computer adaptive assessments (CATs) such as NWEA’s MAP Assessments that are becoming ubiquitous in some regions and are often administered multiple times per year. Faced with limited staff and fiscal resources and with popular concerns about overtesting, gifted educators are increasingly pressured to make use of extant data generated by these assessments in the identification process and to limit administration of achievement tests meant solely for gifted identification. For some interventions and for some students, using data from these assessments may be appropriate. However, gifted educators entering the field should be made aware of issues like ceiling effects that increase measurement error at the high end of the distribution to such an extent that their utility in identifying students for highly selective programs is challenged. Also absent from summaries of assessments are standardized behavior checklists that are often used as part of referral or nomination procedures and sometimes as elements of identification processes, as well as guidelines for evaluating such tools. Other practical considerations not addressed in coverage of assessment selection include the costs of assessments and requirements for administration (e.g., tester qualifications).

Second, future editions of Identifying Gifted Students would benefit from the inclusion of summaries of recent research exploring the value and challenges of universal screening (e.g., Card & Giuliano, 2016) and critiques of the teacher referral or nomination processes that may wrongly eliminate low-income and minority students from potential identification before formal assessments are even administered (e.g., McBee, Peters, & Miller, 2016). Additionally, as K-12 gifted education increasingly embraces a continuum of services approach to programming in recognition of the diversity and range of needs and abilities among gifted students, more discussion of using assessment to guide decisions about cluster grouping and grade and subject acceleration would be valuable, as would exploration of connections between gifted education and increasing policy openness to mastery-based (vs. age-based) advancement through standards-based curriculum.

Third, future editions would benefit from expanding the discussion on using multiple assessments. This book addresses the issue of identifying gifted students under a framework that consists of four components: gifted programming, professional development, multiple assessments, and a diverse population. Of these components, relatively less attention is paid to multiple assessments. More content regarding the use of multiple assessments is certainly necessary considering its increasing application in current identification practices. Specifically, readers would be interested to know more about guidelines for effective implementation of multiple assessments for identification, how to select assessments in light of specific identification needs, issues that might arise when using multiple assessments, and strategies to handle them. In a future revision of this book, it might even be necessary to devote a separate chapter for using multiple assessments.

Finally, future editions could be more practical and relevant to readers through the addition of more illustrative examples. The book aims to serve as a practical tool to assist a host of practitioners, including teachers, counselors, psychologists, and administrators, in identifying gifted students and better serving their learning needs. For this type of book, many authors would have carefully selected and used examples to help illustrate how related knowledge or information can be used to achieve certain goals. Such illustrated examples help readers understand related knowledge and information. Further, they can be handy sources of inspiration for practitioners in real-life problem-solving situations. In this edition, however, examples were only used in a limited number of cases, such as on page 136, where Johnson effectively illustrates how to interpret the outcomes of an intelligence test using the case of David (possibly an imaginary person) and discussing how to interpret his score. Similarly illustrative examples would be beneficial on many occasions throughout this book and would help illuminate a range of topics that involve some assessment expertise, such as test reliability and validity, test norming, testing administration, scoring, and score interpretation. With such additions, the book would be significantly more relevant and useful to its target audience of practitioners.


Overall, Identifying Gifted Students: A Practical Guide serves as an excellent introduction to gifted identification and assessment and is a useful reference resource for current educators. It would serve as a quality text in an introductory graduate course or gifted educator licensure program. Its concise structure and accessible prose would also make it useful for school professional development or as a discussion and reference tool for gifted education specialists leading teams of local stakeholders through a process of creating or revising local identification systems. Johnsen’s guidelines also highlight the value of standards in the field of gifted education and exemplify how standards can be used to frame good thinking and objective reflection to improve practice in the real world of schools. Her approach should stand as a stylistic model for other writers and education leaders seeking to translate standards into truly useful tools to guide better practice in schools.


Card, D., & Giuliano, L. (2016). Universal screening increases the representation of low-income and minority students in gifted education. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(48), 13,678–13,683.

McBee, M. T., Peters, S. J., & Miller, E. M. (2016). The impact of the nomination stage on gifted program identification: A comprehensive psychometric analysis. Gifted Child Quarterly, 60(4), 258–278.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 25, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22721, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 2:58:32 PM

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About the Author
  • Saiying Steenbergen-Hu
    Northwestern University
    E-mail Author
    SAIYING STEENBERGEN-HU, PhD, is a research assistant professor and the research director of the Center for Talent Development (CTD) of Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. Her research focuses on the effectiveness of educational interventions on students’ academic achievement and psychosocial development. Her methodological interests and skills include meta-analysis, research synthesis, educational measurement and assessment, quantitative research methodology, and applied statistical analysis. Her meta-analysis, coauthored with Sidney Moon, on the effects of acceleration on high-ability learners won the Gifted Child Quarterly (GCQ) Paper of the Year Award in 2012. Steenbergen-Hu, Makel, and Olszewski-Kubilius recently published “What One Hundred Years of Research Says About Ability-Grouping and Acceleration: Findings of Two Second-Order Meta-Analyses” in Review of Educational Research (Volume 86, Issue no.4, pp.849-899, 2016).
  • Eric Calvert
    Northwestern University
    E-mail Author
    ERIC CALVERT, EdD, is an associate director of Center for Talent Development (CTD) of Northwestern University. He oversees CTD’s online programs, outreach, and professional development activities for educators. Calvert brings extensive experience in developing innovative programs and services for gifted and talented students to his role at CTD. He previously served as Assistant Director for Gifted Education at the Ohio Department of Education, where he oversaw the revision of the state’s operating standards for K through 12 schools, administered university-based summer programs for gifted students, and oversaw the development of the state’s policy on academic acceleration, which has since become a national model.
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