Why universal screening is a more equitable identifier of gifted and talented students

School districts have historically relied on a referral-based process to identify students for gifted and talented programming. This means that teachers or parents nominate their students to take selected achievement and/or cognitive aptitude tests, frequently used as a screener for gifted and talented placement.

Unfortunately, relying on referrals alone results in overly homogenous gifted and talented programs that are predominantly white, middle class, and male. Research shows that referral-based identification excludes too many students from enrichment and advanced academic opportunities.

But districts are slowly starting to change their identification processes. Instead of using referrals to determine which students take the specified tests, districts have begun universally screening every child to make the identification process more equitable, especially when districts use cognitive aptitude tests for all students, not just a select subset.

A 2015 Card and Giuliano study found that a universal screening system was more effective than the traditional teacher and parent referral system in addressing the under-identification of African-American, Hispanic, female, low socioeconomic status and English learner students. The study also offered best practices for implementing a universal screening process within school districts.

Universal screening with both ability and achievement tests allows each student to highlight both their potential and their performance to help educators make more equitable program placement decisions. Achievement assessments can be heavily influenced by quality of instruction or support at home, so students coming from lower-income communities might not score as high on achievement assessments as students from higher-income areas. In contrast, ability tests measure a student’s innate reasoning ability and potential, which is much less influenced by formal schooling. When schools only refer students based on academic achievement, they are often limiting their student pool to students with the strongest academic preparation.

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