The Struggles with GATE Programs in Today's Schools

Written By Lisa Jobe
November 5, 2021 5:50 PM

Why These Necessary Programs are Being Eliminated  and What Options Gifted Learners Have for Reaching Their Potential

November 1, 2021


By Lisa Jobe 

This week, the Associated Press highlighted New York City’s plan to phase out gifted and talented (GATE) programs in the United State’s largest public school district.  Critics of GATE programs claim that they unfairly admit Caucasian and Asian students over other minorities.  While Black and Latino children make up two-thirds of the New York school district, they are represented in just one quarter of GATE students.  Similar moves have been in place in California, Virginia, and other states to eliminate advanced academic tracts due to equity.


Yet parents of gifted children, particularly those at the highest IQ levels, protest that GATE programs are necessary for their students to receive a quality education to challenge them, to enable them to achieve their learning potential, as well as to help them connect socially and emotionally with peers.  Gifted advocates point out that gifted children don’t just learn faster, but also have unique traits that should be recognized as special learning needs.  


Even where GATE programs continue to exist, concerns remain that they still don’t meet the needs of our most highly gifted students.  Where then, are our gifted children able to receive a quality education that best serves their needs?  


What Does it Mean to Be Gifted?


While all parents celebrate our children’s unique gifts, to be academically “gifted” is to demonstrate an exceptional ability to think, comprehend, and reason beyond same-age peers.  Gifted students often share similar traits such as excellent memory, a higher degree of curiosity and interest in learning, heightened emotional intensity, and an increased self-awareness.  According to the National Association of Gifted Children’s article entitled “Definition of Giftedness”, “the term gifted and talented means students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in such areas as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”


Various IQ tests further define the term by the level of IQ range. While they are not consistent in their labeling, the intellectual bell curve demonstrates that:


  • The average IQ is 100.  Nearly seventy percent of the population falls within one standard deviation of this mean.  This is the intellectual ability where standard age-based curriculum targets.
  • Approximately seven percent of the population has an IQ in the second deviation range, between 115 and 130.  Just like their counterparts on the left side of the bell curve, these “above average” to “moderately gifted” students often need accommodations to the traditional curriculum to reach their potential.
  • Two percent of students are in the third deviation IQ range, between 130-145. These “highly gifted” students require individualized curriculum to meet their needs.
  • 0.13 percent of the population are in the fourth standard deviation, between 145-160.  These profoundly gifted students require individualized instruction for their exceptional needs.  
  • 0.003 percent of the population is in the fifth standard deviation, with IQs above 160.  

Issues with GATE Identification


GATE advisors across the country recognize that they have an issue with GATE identification.  I sat on a GATE advisory committee in a diverse California school district for several years as the committee pondered what choices could be best made to identify more underserved gifted students.  This school district served two distinct communities.  The more affluent community was primarily comprised of Caucasian and Asian families; the other community was composed of significantly more Black, Hispanic, and other racial minority families.  Despite “testing bonus scores” for ESL learners, the overwhelming majority of GATE-identified students in the district came from the first set of schools.  


No Recognized Standard for Identification


For starters, there is no standard age or format for recognizing our gifted learners.  New York City was screening four year olds, before they even entered Kindergarten.   Some districts begin by looking at the achievement scores that second graders receive from required state testing.  Others wait and provide a shortened cognitive IQ test to all of the district’s third graders.  Allowances for teacher recommendations that override scores further subjectivize the process.  


Achievement vs Giftedness


Achievement markers, such as classroom grades or state testing scores, is a common yet misinformed way to accomplish gifted identification.  In fact, not all gifted children are high achievers, and high achievers are not always gifted.  


High achievers are generally students who build and utilize strong study skills, learn what the teacher is seeking and are willing to put the time in to match that expectation, and are strong writers and test takers.  They tend to do well “within the box” and generally enjoy the school environment.  


Gifted learners, on the other hand, tend to think “outside the box,” making abstract relationships and connections far beyond what an assessment seeks.  For example, after my three year old was asked by his Montessori teacher to describe what a refrigerator does, the teacher told me that she had never heard a more accurate and complete description from a preschooler; however, since he did not use the words “cold, ice,..”, she had to give him a 0 on his assessment.  Gifted learners tend to struggle on multiple choice assessments when they can make an abstract case for more than one answer, or can reason why none of the answers actually apply  


Gifted students may have more intensities that make sitting in a classroom looking like a model student more difficult, and they may be bored and looking for other stimulation.  Gifted students may also lack study skills when answers come more readily to them.  Gifted math students often struggle to write out their entire math problems, since their abstract reasoning may answer the question in ways different than the curriculum’s method.  This often creates frustration.  


Older gifted students often have no interest in valedictorian or competing for other academic honors that have particular requirements.  They would much rather explore what uniquely interests them, often seeking independent study or taking electives at local universities.  

The Limitations of Shortened IQ Tests


Gifted potential is generally best identified through IQ assessments.  IQ tests are designed to measure cognitive abilities, which are a learner’s general ability to solve problems and understand concepts. Just as our brains do not operate in just a singular way, the most accurate way to assess cognitive ability is through several different methods.  Thus, the most accurate assessments include many different subtests, including reasoning ability, problem-solving ability, information retrieval, the ability to perceive relationships, and other similar concepts.  The most highly-recognized tests, such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), use eleven different subtests to make up a full-scale IQ score (FSIQ).  These assessments necessitate a qualified psychologist assessor to be deemed valid, and take several hours of one-on-one time with the student to complete, then validate.  Due to time constraints, costs, and limited school psychologist personnel, it would be unwieldy to offer full testing to every student for GATE Identification.


Instead, many school districts use limited IQ assessments, like the Ravens Progressive Matrices (the “Raven”).  The Raven is a short non-verbal Matrix Reasoning subtest, ideal for eliminating English-language discrepancies and generally predictive of FSIQ findings, but far more limited in scope. 




One of the dangers in using a limited test, which has plagued the Raven, is the increased likelihood for cheating.  


In one of my GATE advisory meetings, I learned why our district had eliminated the Raven a few years back.  As one teacher recanted, a proctor noticed that several students were “sing-songing” the answer key under their breaths while completing the test.  


Our country’s second largest school district discovered the same issue.  According to the LA School Report Article, “Cheating Parents, MSIS, Conspire to Slow Down LAUSD’s Gifted Program,” in 2012-2013, the GATE Department discovered large discrepancies, such as seeing an entire classroom score above the 99th percentile on the Raven assessment.  In looking deeper, the district found, “...a lot [of] kids that would just admit that they were on the web taking the actual test the night before with their parents,” since the test could be found with google searches.   


Socioeconomic Pitfalls


Identifying underserved gifted children is an issue that plagues all gifted advocates, not just formal GATE programs.  In this 2016 Purdue Study, researchers found that as many as 3.6 million children are never properly identified as gifted.  Of those that are identified, others fall through the cracks in obtaining access to resources.


GATE programming is inconsistent across states, districts, and even schools.  At the time of this research, one third of students in the U.S. attend schools that do not even conduct gifted identification, effectively barring their access.  Students who attend non-Title-I schools are identified at a rate 50% greater than at Title I schools.  


Another issue includes using assessments that create a disparate impact on minority students.  When my older son qualified for GATE, his school district first sorted all the students who had scored in the top five percent of the second grade required state testing.  Since the state testing assessed reading comprehension and math (with directions in the English language), this created a disparate impact on ESL students, as well as those whose cultural linguistics may have been different than what was captured on the test.  


Poverty also significantly impacts a student’s ability to access gifted resources.  When parents must juggle multiple jobs and stresses that come with providing basic resources for their children, they are less able to advocate for their children’s high potential needs, prepare them for assessments, or transport them to even no-cost enrichment activities.  Children who are hungry or lacking other necessities generally do not perform as well, and they likely do not stand out as much to teachers who are making assessment recommendations.  These families are also unable to pay for expensive private IQ testing, which affluent families have access to if their learners do not qualify through the traditional school methods.  


Gifted advocates such as those at The Excellence Project work tirelessly to eliminate socioeconomic factors so that all gifted students receive the identification and resources necessary to meet their educational needs.  When districts throw in the towel, though, by removing access for all of these unique learners, they fail to serve any of our nation’s brightest potential.  


  Where Can Our Most Gifted Students Receive a Quality Education?


While millions of gifted students will lose their educational accommodations with the elimination of gifted programming, the stark fact is that thousands more have never been accommodated in the first place.  GATE advisors and teachers recognize that their programs are generally filled with high achieving non-gifted students or moderately gifted learners in the first standard deviation above average.  Granted, highly and profoundly gifted students are less-common in most school districts, and thus would not fill their own classroom.  Nonetheless, just as moderately gifted need accommodations from traditional learning plans, so much greater do the highly and profoundly gifted need even more. This is why so many gifted students become homeschool learners with individualized curriculum and freedom to let their curiosities soar.  


Do you have a gifted learner who needs more individualized learning pathways than their current education provides?  Contact Uschool today to schedule a complimentary consultation with a gifted education specialist…



Lisa Jobe

About the Author

Lisa Jobe is a Learning Advisor and Gifted Specialist with Uschool. After beginning her career as an attorney, Lisa has spent the past 13 years homeschooling her own profoundly gifted children while actively teaching and serving as a gifted resource in her community. Lisa advocates for meeting the unique learning styles of each student and works with school administrators to meet the needs of gifted children and their families. When not coaching and mentoring, she loves to travel, attend sports games, and curl up with a good book and her lapdog, Juan Diego. Follow Lisa at Uschool and with her gifted-education outreach under Golden Sierra Gifted Ed on social media.

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