Gifted or Gifting?

While gifted curricula like GOAL provide robust opportunities to students in the program, can American schools do more for those on the outside?

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photo by Meg Rees

Gifted programs’ testing requirements are too narrow to properly measure the varieties of giftedness in young people.

Lucie Flagg, Staff Writer

I always felt like I was a step below my sister. In first grade, she tested into the gifted program, which jump-started a future of constant prioritizing and hierarchical learning. She was the kid with her head stuffed into a book, whereas I was always eager to meet people and have conversations. I always thought that being able to have a normal conversation with adults at such a young age was an useful trait, but I promptly realized that the school’s priorities were elsewhere.

Very quickly, as I started to become more engaged in elementary school, I began to discover a true issue within not only North Allegheny’s educational system, but in the American system as a whole. These gifted programs were searching for students like my sister, whose brains worked analytically, rather than students like me, who exhibited the social skills but lacked the analytical aptitude.

I always thought that having common sense was a desired attribute, but learned quite quickly that it wasn’t what my school’s gifted program was looking for. The administration supporting my education has always cared for me and what’s in my best interest, but back in elementary and middle school, it felt as though there was an elite group of kids prioritized above the rest of my peers and me.

In elementary school and middle school, it felt as though there was an elite group of kids prioritized above me and the rest of my peers.

It felt like every day there was a new field trip opportunity for my sister and my friends in the gifted program. Quite often, while I was in the classroom learning about science, math, and English, my peers were out of the building, meeting surgeons or going to art museums. 

Since I entered high school, many of those GOAL (Gifted Opportunities for Advanced Learners) opportunities have also been open to those of us not a part of the program — though, in a sense, it feels much too late. At this point in my education, I don’t want to miss a day of school because of the stress and heavy workload that follows. I usually decline the invitations from GOAL, simply out of fear of missing school. Back in elementary and middle school, those opportunities could have really benefited me.

This idea of “gifted” students is truly what is wrong in the system. How should we label the others? Non-gifted students? 

In elementary school, I took the test to see if I was eligible for GOAL, but simply didn’t make the cut. I remember the test very clearly because of the almost-traumatic experience of taking it. Several adults pulled me out of music class and didn’t care to ask me about my weekend or how my day was going to lighten the mood. They just sat me down in a room and proceeded to ask me to do brain exercises.

One of the questions, in particular, has remained in my memory after all of these years. They asked me to define “cow.” I remember thinking, “I know what a cow is. You know what a cow is. You know I know what a cow is. How am I supposed to define it?”

Today, I would’ve said, “A cow is a mammal that lives on a farm and produces milk.” But back then, I was scared and didn’t know what to say.

The entrance standards for gifted programs do not reflect what’s truly inside one’s mind — how can any exam measure that?

“Gifted” is a tricky word.  If schools were to be more precise, they would identify the aptitudes they use to define giftedness.  I suspect that many other areas of intellectual and social life go untested on their entrance exams.

The entrance standards for gifted programs do not reflect what’s truly inside one’s mind — how can any exam measure that?  While American education promotes inclusivity in a multitude of ways, the value seems to dissipate when it comes to gifted education. With the wealth of resources available in our district and across the country’s educational system, I just hope we can find a way to open them to more kids from the moment they start school.