When children start school, it’s often parents who get the vocabulary lesson. “Has your child taken the CogAt yet?” a fellow parent might ask. You might wonder if the CogAt is some new children’s vitamin or the latest toy craze.
CogAt is short for the Cognitive Abilities Test, and it is one test a school district can choose to identify students for gifted education. Your next question might be: What is gifted education?
“I describe it every day as special education,” says Dr. Kimberly Lansdowne, executive director of the Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy in Glendale. “It is needs-based education, based on the idea that every child has a right to learn every single day.”
Lansdowne, who was the 2014 Arizona Association for Gifted and Talented Administrator of the Year, strongly advocates for gifted education. “Let’s say a fifth grader on first day of school takes an end-of-the-year math test and scores 90 percent or 100 percent,” explains Lansdowne. “That child may sit in a classroom 182 days and not learn something new, which is just a crime.”
Gifted education provides instruction for cognitively advanced students at their learning level. The rationale for gifted education is straightforward, but its landscape can be difficult to traverse without guidance. Here are answers to common questions parents have about gifted education.
What does gifted education look like?
According to Arizona law (Arizona Revised Statute 15-779), gifted education includes “an educational program that is an integral part of the regular school day and that is commensurate with the academic abilities and potential of a gifted pupil.” This leaves districts wide latitude in designing their gifted programs.
Lansdowne says there are four main tiers of gifted education:
- Enrichment-type programs, perhaps offered after school or during lunch one day a week.
- Cluster grouping, where a small group of identified gifted students are placed in a regular classroom.
- Self-contained programs where the whole class includes gifted students.
- Specialized schools for the gifted. Lansdowne explains that this includes some charter schools that cater to gifted children’s special interests, such as the arts or technology.
Another gifted accommodation is acceleration, which can involve a single subject, as when a fifth-grade student takes a pre-algebra course. “Especially with technology now, it’s such an easy thing to do,” says Lansdowne.
Acceleration can also be at the whole-grade level. “It’s not as common and can have some drawbacks socially and emotionally,” Lansdowne explains, “but research shows that it is positive if it is done properly.” A tool called the Iowa Acceleration Scale indicates if a student is a good candidate for skipping a grade and looks at multiple factors, such as academics, birth order and level of family support.
What are signs my child might be gifted?
“There’s a large gap between that high-ability kid — that kid [that] schools are made for — and a gifted kid,” says Lansdowne. “High-ability kids learn, they have friends, they don’t complain about going to school and they are really well-behaved.” When Lansdowne asks probing questions of parents of gifted kids, their answers often paint a different picture. Sometimes being ahead of the game leads to boredom and frustration in a gifted child, and that can have behavioral consequences in school.
What is the gifted testing process?
School districts in Arizona are required to provide gifted testing three times a year. The Arizona Department of Education website lists approved tests that districts may use. Districts are required to offer gifted services to students scoring at the 97th percentile or above on the test. Gifted tests can be administered individually or in a group setting, but most districts test at the group level because of the high cost of individualized testing.
Some schools do “blanket” gifted testing. This means every student in the school district takes a cognitive reasoning test, typically in third grade. Lansdowne believes there are no false positives on these blanket tests, but there are certainly false negatives.
“Probably more than 90 percent of tests on the ADE website are group-administered tests,” which she says are less reliable than individually administered tests. The Herberger Academy, a school for highly gifted students on Arizona State University’s West Campus, individually tests all students. “When such important decisions are being made based on test scores, individually administered assessments provide more information and are more reliable,” she says.
Lansdowne also balks at the trend of waiting until third grade to test. “I really think that kids should be tested at 5 to 6 years of age,” she says, adding she realizes she might get pushback from her peers in gifted education. “If you wait until third grade, you’ve got kids who have 364 school days where they possibly have not been learning.” Not learning can become a habit, and boredom can lead to a lack of connection to school early on. Lansdowne also advocates re-testing at age 10 or 11, before students dive into the choppy waters of middle school.
Who initiates gifted testing?
Districts that do blanket testing eliminate the need for referrals, because all students are screened. For districts that don’t blanket test, the most common referral is teacher nomination. Parents can also request their child be tested. Finally, kids can nominate themselves for gifted testing, but this is very uncommon.
Parents’ requests for gifted testing cannot be refused by a district, but testing needs to be within the district’s testing timeline. Some parents may also opt to arrange an individual intelligence test through a private provider. “This can cost anywhere from $500 to $1,200,” says Lansdowne, “but it is so important for those truly gifted kids.” Parents can get recommendations for private testing through the state advocacy group Arizona Association of Gifted and Talented. In addition, the district’s director of gifted services can make a referral.
Where can I learn more about gifted education?
Lansdowne highly recommends the book “A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children” by James Webb. “It really does take the anxiety and the mystery out of ‘who is this kid that I have and how do I advocate for them,’ ” says Lansdowne. “It gives advice on how to work with your school, who to talk to and how to learn more about the gifted program without being perceived as ‘that crazy helicopter gifted parent.’ ”