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Gifted Education in the United States

This article is an account of my personal experience participating in several gifted programs in the United States as a parent. Information obtained through interviews with two gifted program educators is also presented. The paper consists of the following in sections: (1) definition of giftedness, (2) criteria for gifted programs, (3) types of gifted programs, and (4) challenges of gifted students. It also addresses what Japanese educators can learn from gifted programs in the United States.

Gifted education, United States, Intelligence test (IQ test), Special needs
1. What is Gifted?

The definition of gifted varies. Depending upon the definition, the target children in a gifted education program and its delivery will be different. The word "gifted*1" can imply a quality given from heaven, which indicates heritability. However, there is disagreement regarding what accounts for giftedness, heritability or environmental contexts, or a complex interaction between them.

According to the federal definition, gifted students are "children and youths who give evidence of higher performance capability in such areas as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the schools in order to develop such capabilities fully." Howard Gardner explains that a child's special capability should be defined within a variety of areas: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic and existential (multiple intelligences). However, the formal identification of gifted students is often done with IQ test scores and standardized tests.

Regarding the population of gifted students in the United States, there is no official data from the federal government. However, the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), the largest organization of gifted education in the United States, estimates that there are about 3 million academically gifted children in grades K-12, which is about 6% of the total student population.

Gifted education is different from a type of early learning, which is purportedly designed to create gifted children by investing a large amount of time and resources (e.g., using flash cards, DVDs, and electronic educational toys designed to stimulate the baby's brain). During the orientation for a gifted program in my daughter's school district, we learned about gifted children in comparison with bright children:

Table 1 Difference between Bright Child and Gifted Learner

Bright Child Gifted Learner
Has good ideas. Has wild, silly ideas.
Works hard. Plays around, yet tests well.
Top group. Beyond the group.
6-8 repetitions for mastery. 1-2 repetitions for mastery.
Enjoys peers. Prefers adults.
Enjoys school. Enjoys learning.
Enjoys straightforward, sequential presentation. Thrives on complexity.
Is pleased with own learning. Is highly self-critical.

In Table 1, the characteristics of gifted students are described as highly curious, full of originality, excellent memorization skills, and capable of mastering skills with few repetitions. Such students don't work very hard to achieve high academic excellence. Yet, they appear to be perfectionist and highly self-critical. Because their cognitive development is more advanced than typically developing children, but often not their socio-emotional development, they often have a difficult time getting along with children of the same age. They often prefer to spend time with adults. However, there is some variability among the characteristics of gifted children.

2. Criteria for gifted programs

How will gifted students be identified? It depends on the definition of giftedness by the school district and the state. Many schools use a wide range of assessments, such as IQ test scores, achievement tests, questionnaires from the classroom teacher and parents, classroom observation, documentation, and interviews. Although a high IQ has been the most common measure for placement, there is some skepticism regarding the reliability of IQ test scores in identifying giftedness. Yet, in the field of education practice, the data from IQ tests are frequently used because quantitative results make it easier to compare one student to another. Here are some examples of criteria that are used to identify gifted students at the school districts that the author's daughter attended*2.

1) School District A

Identification Process: WISC-IV (intelligence test), Questionnaire to the parents and classroom teacher

Explanation: This district uses the criteria from the WISC-IV score at or above the 98 percentile*3. At the state level, the 95 percentile was the cut off. Because this district was located in a college town, the standards were higher. The questionnaire was intended to evaluate the child's language ability (e.g., "Has a large vocabulary"), learning style ("Learns and retains skills rapidly, easily, efficiently, and with little repetition"), motivation ("Becomes easily impatient with drill and routine procedures"), socio-emotional development ("Is sensitive to feelings of others or to situations"), and creativity ("Has several ideas about something instead of just one").

2) School District B

Identification Process: The Measures of Academic Progress Test (MAP), Otis Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT*4, intelligence test), Structure of Intellect (SOI, creativity test), Questionnaire to the parent and classroom teacher

Explanation: The first step of the screening process is that a student is nominated by the parent or the teacher, but he or she has to meet the academic achievement at or above the 98 percentile in reading and math as measured by the Measures of Academic Progress tests. Then, the nominated student will take the Cognitive/intellectual test (OLSAT). If the score is at or above the 98 percentile, the student will be eligible for the Highly Capable Program. If not, the student will take the creativity test (SOI). If it meets the requirement of at or above the 98 percentile, the student will be accepted to the Highly Capable Program.

3) School District C

Identification Process: Group or individual ability tests (e.g., Otis Lennon School Ability Test, Reynolds Intellectual Screening Test, Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, Cognitive Ability Test), Stanford Achievement Test, Questionnaire to the parent and classroom teacher (higher grades), Teacher observations (lower grades).

Explanation: In this district a student is qualified for the gifted program, if he or she meets the following two requirements, (1) Achievement Measurements - Students scores at or above the 96 percentile for one of the subjects on the Stanford Achievement Test, (2) Ability Measurements - Students score past the first standard deviation to the right of the norm on ability measures (about 84 percentile).

By looking at the gifted program placement for each school district, the common denominator is intelligence tests and questionnaires for the parent and the teacher. However, there is some variance in the level of students that are targeted. For example, School District A and B require the students score to be at or above the 98 percentile on the intelligence test, and therefore, eligible students are far fewer than School District C, which only requires at or above the 84 percentile. For example, as for School District B, the number of gifted students in my daughter's grade was a little less than 10%.

School District B appears to have the strictest rule for determining eligible students. The target students must be in the top 2 percent in both intellectual ability and academic achievement scores. Furthermore, the nominated student must be at or above the 98 percentile in reading and math achievement. Table 1 was distributed during the school district orientation for the gifted programs. The program is targeting children who are "beyond the group." According to a gifted program coordinator at School District B, because the district is located in a college town, they have to put the bar really high. Many of the children are from families of academics or university administrators. In fact, this school district uses one grade above math curriculum for all district children. Therefore, in order to provide sufficient service for gifted children, they had to reduce the number by creating high standards for eligibility.

By contrast, selection criteria for School District C are rather lenient. They don't require a student to excel in both reading and math. In addition, the children's ability test scores, such as on the OLSAT, only have to be above the 84 percentile. According to a gifted program teacher in School District C, this district also takes into account the educational philosophy of multiple intelligences by Howard Gardner. They intentionally select students, not only based on intellectual ability, but on other intelligences. In fact, at my daughter's school, among 13 classes in her grade, 4 of them were gifted classrooms. The gifted program teacher explained that they sometimes enroll students who are not really gifted but high achieving due to pressure from parents*5.

3. Types of Gifted Programs

There are several types of gifted programs in the United States.


Gifted students are pulled out of a regular classroom to spend a portion of their time in a gifted class or school. For example, at School District B, gifted students meet together once a week for about 2 hours in one school, which is often different from their home campus. They spend time engaging in academic tasks which are more complicated and difficult than those in their regular classrooms. They also participate in a project of their own interest. At District A, gifted students in grades 3-5 are transported to and from the Center for Gifted Education for one full day of differentiated instruction per week. They take interdisciplinary classes, which focus on a topic or theme, such as "psychology" and "WWII." Students also work in homeroom groups throughout the school year in order to foster their socio-emotional growth. As for District C, gifted students go to gifted classrooms for the core subjects (language arts, math, science, social studies), while they share the class with other students in other subjects (e.g., physical education, music).


Enrichment programs provide a broad range of advanced-level enrichment experiences. For example, gifted students sometimes receive different and more challenging homework from the classroom teacher. Or, based on their strengths and interests, they participate in events such as Spelling Bees, Science Fairs, and Math Olympics. Some schools provide extracurricular activities, such as Chess and Math Club for students and other learners.


Acceleration may take the form of skipping grades or school. For example, some children start kindergarten early. This is based on the view that school readiness is not dependent on the chronological age of the child but the abilities of the child. In addition, some colleges offer early entrance programs that give gifted individuals of junior high and high school age the opportunity to attend college early.

Many schools, especially junior highs and high schools, in the U.S. use homogeneous grouping, which means that classes are organized by ability and preparedness. For example, all of the three school districts (A, B, C) offer PreAP (PreAdvanced Placement) courses for junior high and high school students, and AP (Advanced Placement) courses for high school students. AP courses offer college level curriculums and exams for high school level students. The students can earn college credit and advanced placement through AP courses. PreAP courses offer an advanced and rigorous curriculum, which prepares students for AP classes and other challenging coursework. This system allows students to graduate college in a shorter period of time.

Summer Enrichment Programs

In the summer there are many programs and camps for gifted children in the United States. A well-known gifted education program is The Center for Talented Youth (CTY) at Johns Hopkins University. Their summer programs are held on many university campuses throughout the United States and in other nations. Eligibility for CTY Young Students summer program courses is determined by scores earned on the above-grade-level SCAT (School and College Ability Test), either alone or in combination with CTY's Spatial Test Battery (STB).

4. Challenges of Gifted Students

The purpose of gifted education is not only to provide educational content based on the abilities of gifted students. It is also designed to reduce the challenges and difficulties they face on a daily basis. Some of the challenges are uneven development (advanced intellectual ability and more age-level socio-emotional and physical development), perfectionism, high adult expectation, and intense sensitivity. Here are some examples of challenging behaviors among gifted students:

  • Easily gets "off task" and "off topic"
  • Is easily bored
  • Can become disruptive in class
  • Shows strong resistance to repetitive activities and memorization
  • Completes work quickly but sloppily
  • May resist working on activities apart from areas of interest
  • Takes on too much and becomes overwhelmed
  • Challenges authority
  • Does not handle criticism well
  • Does not work well in groups
  • Forgets homework assignments
  • Can be very critical of self and others
  • Is a perfectionist and expects others to be perfect as well
  • Easily gets carried away with a joke
  • Has a tendency to become the "class clown"
  • Demonstrates strong expressive skills
  • Sometimes perceived as a "know-it-all" by peers
  • Is sometimes "bossy" to peers in group situations

One possible reason of such difficulties is because the class is "too easy" for them. Additionally, the topic is not something that the gifted student may be interested in. Therefore, the student is unable to focus on the task or appears to be bored, which leads others to misinterpret his or her behavior. In addition, isolation is one of the main challenges faced by gifted students because of characteristics such as extreme sensitivity, perfectionism or learning differences. In order to fit in, some gifted students try to hide their ability or underperform. Because of social isolation and sensitivity, gifted students sometimes demonstrate anxiety and depression more than their peers.

According to research conducted in the U.S., about 15-25% of gifted students drop out of high school. The main reasons were reported as failing grades, disliking school, finding a job, or becoming pregnant. Most of them were not planning to go back to school. This tendency was much stronger for gifted students of low socio-economic status or from racial/ethnic minority groups.

In particular, the experts and parents need to be aware that there are some similar traits between giftedness and ADHD. For example, characteristics of ADHD children such as, poor attention, low tolerance for persistence on tasks, power struggles with authorities, are also seen in gifted children who are bored. Therefore, there is the possibility that some gifted children are misdiagnosed with ADHD.

The gifted teacher in School District C expressed her concern about misdiagnosis during the interview. Children who are raised in low income families are more likely to be misdiagnosed for ADHD because they typically do not receive enough educational stimulation at home. Those children might show some symptoms of ADHD such as hyper activity or excessive energy, and therefore, the experts recommend putting the child on the ADHD medicine. She often advises the parents of the child to stop giving the ADHD medicine. As a result, some of them demonstrate a rapid growth in academic achievement.

Recently, some children have been identified as "Twice Exceptional." The term refers to gifted children who are also identified with diagnosable conditions, such as learning disabilities, mental health problems, and neurological disabilities (e.g., ADHD, Asperger Syndrome, Dyslexia). However, due to the masking of their strengths and weaknesses, those children are very difficult to identify. They often show greater asynchrony than average children (e.g., superior vocabulary, difficulty in written expression). Finding the right school for the twice exceptional child can be challenging for the parent. Professional and public awareness about twice exceptional is an urgent agenda.

5. What does Japan learn from the gifted education in the United States

Finally, I would like to discuss what Japan can learn from gifted education in the United States. Among all Asian countries with top ranking PISA (international assessment that focuses on 15-year-olds' capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy) scores (China, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan), Japan is the only country, which has no formal policies supporting gifted education. Perhaps this is due to the Japanese educational philosophy that teaches that every child should receive an equal education and special treatment should not be allowed. Japanese also view gifted education negatively because it is associated with elitism. Furthermore, in Japan high academic achievement is viewed as the result of the student's effort and hard work and not the result of innate abilities. However, this cultural view is also found in other Asian countries such as China.

In 2011 an autobiography on parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Yale law professor Amy Chua, prompted a huge response from readers, both positive and negative. As the daughter of a Chinese immigrant, she promoted the authoritarian, strict style of Chinese parenting, in contrast to the permissive, indulgent style of Western (United States) parenting. Through her book she explained how Chinese parenting style could produce academic high achievers and musical prodigies. Although there has been strong criticism toward her controlling and obsessive Chinese parenting style, there seem to be some fears arising that the United States is not adequately preparing their children to survive in the global economy against countries like China or other countries, which strive to make their children academically successful. Chua appears to believe that providing an optimal environment for the child to be successful and pressuring the child to work hard is the key for giftedness, instead of the child's innate ability, will or interest. However, there are possible side effects of overly strict and controlling parenting styles on children's mental health (e.g., depression, high anxiety, and suicide).

I must add that highly devoted and sacrificial Japanese mothers who relentlessly drove their children to study received world attention, and much earlier than China. Yet, Japan gradually learned that too much academic pressure on children creates social problems such as school phobia, suicides or other behavior problems. Consequently, Japanese education reforms took place to provide "yutori kyoiku" (relaxed education) for students. This led to a decline in some basic academic skills for Japanese students in comparison to other industrial countries. Currently, Japan is once again moving toward "datsu yutori kyoiku" (anti-relaxed education) to improve academic ability.

I believe that Japanese educators need to be aware of the fact that students with high capability and talent sometimes end up dropping out or failing, and/or experiencing difficulties and challenges at school as seen in the findings from research on gifted students in the United States. In particular, the evaluation of children with disabilities, such as ADHD, should be administrated comprehensively with the possibility of the child being gifted. Japanese policy makers need to keep in mind that postponing the implementation of gifted education may penalize children with high performance capability in the current education system with its' orientation toward conformity.

  • *1 The names for gifted education vary. For example, two of the school districts my daughter has attended have used the wording "highly capable" and "gifted and talented."
  • *2 I didn't have any idea that my daughter was gifted until she was nominated for her school district's gifted program by her classroom teacher at the end of second grade. She was raised in a family environment that prioritized care and intervention programs for her brother who was diagnosed with autism. In addition, when she was age 3, she took Developmental Indicators for the Assessment of Learning - Third Edition (DIAL-3) as part of the requirement for a university affiliated preschool. She was evaluated as mild delayed, specifically in the areas of physical and sensory function. The evaluator recommended her for Title 1 Preschool, which is a federally funded program providing services to children with developmental needs, ages three to five (non-kindergarten) years. However, because of my work schedule, she was only able to attend this compensatory program for 2 months.
  • *3 According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "percentile is a value on a scale of 100 that indicates the percent of a distribution that is equal to or below it." In percentile scores, 50 percentile is average.
  • *4 Because the OLSAT test measures the student's cognitive processing instead of his or her knowledge, the school told us that no preparation was necessary.
  • *5 This may be related to the demographic characteristics of District C. The annual household income in this town is $87,670 (The average household income in the U.S. is $50,221). About 96% of the adult residents have an educational background beyond high school (The average percentage in the U.S. is 85%).


  • Dai, D. Y. (2010). The nature and nurture of giftedness: A new framework for understanding gifted education. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Hoagies' Gifted Education Page (2011).
  • Ibata-Arens, K. C. (2012). Race to the future: Innovations in gifted and enrichment education in Asia, and implications for the United States. Administrative Sciences, 2(1), 1-25.
  • Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented youth (2011).
  • National Association for Gifted Children (2008).
  • Renzulli, J.S. (2005). The three-ring conception of giftedness: A developmental model for promoting creative productivity. In R. J. Sternberg & J. E. Davidson (Eds.), Conceptions of giftedness (2nd ed., pp. 246-279). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Robertson, E. (1991). Neglected dropouts: The gifted and talented. Equity & Excellence, 25, 62-74.
  • Ryser, G. R. (2004). Qualitative and quantitative approaches to assessment. In S. K. Johnsen (Ed.), Identifying gifted students: A practical guide. (pp. 23-40). Waco, Texas: Prufrock Press.
  • Sternberg, R. J., Jarvin, L., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2011). Explorations in giftedness. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Teachers and Families (2011). The exceptional child.

Noriko_Porter.jpg Noriko Porter
Noriko Porter is an Instructor in the Department of Human Development at Washington State University. Before immigrating to the United States, she worked as an Associate Professor at Hokuriku Gakuin Jr. College in Japan. She received a Ph.D. from the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Missouri, Columbia in 2008. Her research interests are cross-cultural parenting, autism, and early childhood education. In 2012 she received the Nihon Hoiku Gakkai Kurahashi-Kenkyu Shoreishou (The research excellence award by the Japan Society of Research on Early Childhood Care and Education) for a manuscript based on early intervention programs for her son who is a child with autism. She and her husband currently reside in The Woodlands, TX. with their two teenage children.
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