Adjusting Identification Services for the 2020-2021 School Year in the Time of COVID

Julia Roberts and Jonathan Plucker

As the normal school calendar has been interrupted by the current pandemic, educators are being forced to adapt routine procedures and timelines in all aspects of K-12 education. These changes have been significant within gifted and advanced education, ranging from suspension of programming to rescheduling and reconceptualizing Advanced Placement tests to outright canceling college entrance examinations. All of these developments, although necessary to protect our students’ and educators’ health, have been disruptive to students, their families, and many organizations that provide advanced learning opportunities.

One of the biggest disruptions – and one that we are increasingly asked about – is identification of gifted students for the 2020-2021 school year. In most districts, identification systems occur in the spring and/or rely on data collected in the spring. With schools operating online (or even canceled for the remainder of the year) and school budgets likely to feel immense pressure for the foreseeable future, what are the key issues and strategies educators should be considering as they think about identification for next year’s advanced services?

Our recommendations are based on a number of observations. First, many students faced severe learning limitations starting in mid-March due to lack of devices, limited internet services, and reduced learning time. Yet other students had few limitations and may have learned as much, if not more, than they would have if attending school in person. Out-of-school learning experiences also vary greatly.

Second, nearly all educators will face significant data limitations with the cancellation of state tests and missed opportunities for additional data that would have been gathered during the spring months. And last but not least, schools are already starting to feel the severe economic shocks of the pandemic, with resources predicted to be tight, if not sharply reduced, for the foreseeable future.

These characteristics of our current situation are major hurdles to the identification of talented students, yet they are not insurmountable. We offer the following guidelines to consider when identifying students for advanced learning services next year.

  1. Consider moving the entire identification process to the fall. Attempting to gather data now is, at best, going to be tricky – and an additional burden on educators and families during a stressful time. Identification can wait until the fall, and programming can wait until a few weeks, even a few months, into the school year with few adverse effects for most students.
  2. Even if moved to the fall, few districts will have the resources (i.e., funding, data) to implement the normal identification process. If returning to face-to-face classes, some standardized assessments that were to be administered in the spring can be rescheduled for the fall. If returning with online learning for a few months, standardized assessments may be very difficult to administer, and the identification process may have to proceed without those sources of data for this year.
  3. Other data points – such as teacher recommendations and rating scales – can be collected in the fall. If teacher input is included, we recommend gathering it from teachers from the previous year as well as the teachers in the fall. The previous year’s teachers can reflect on individual student’s performance last fall and winter and the student’s potential for advanced performance if the year had not been interrupted. The previous year’s teachers can also provide input on the extent to which each student was able to learn effectively in online environments this spring, helping guard against bias toward students who did not have good virtual learning experiences.
  4. Each student’s new teacher in the fall can also provide input, especially if the data are collected after four to six weeks of classes, when they have had opportunities to observe the students. Response lessons, those focusing on new material that allow students the opportunity to reveal high-level thinking, will be useful.
  5. However, gathering data primarily from teachers during a fall identification process is not without significant limitations. Research provides ample evidence that teacher ratings scales and recommendations can be unreliable and biased against certain groups of students. Fortunately, other research suggests that carefully-crafted training can provide teachers with guidance in how to identify potential for advanced learning. Any identification system that includes teacher input should be based on a strong professional learning program; such training will be even more critical given the current crisis and its likely effects on student learning come the fall.
  6. We urge educators to consider focusing on potential for advanced learning rather than advanced performance during selection processes for next year’s programming. Excellence gaps are almost certainly growing during the pandemic, and a tight focus on advanced performance will exclude students who didn’t have access to the necessary technology and support to thrive in an online environment. Many of these students may also be living in communities being ravaged by the pandemic, adding a level of potentially long-term trauma that needs to be factored into identification decisions.

The educators contacting us with questions about identification are very worried about their students. On the one hand, these conversations are positive, as their concern and empathy for our children is obvious and heartening. On the other hand, these interactions are emotional and deeply troubling, as we can hear and see the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty in our colleagues’ and friends’ voices and messages. With that in mind, our final recommendation is to acknowledge and embrace how we are all feeling right now. None of us has ever experienced a pandemic, let alone one with such horrible consequences; at the same time, none of us have ever experienced such a sharp and sudden economic collapse. It is perfectly justifiable to cobble together an identification strategy that works for you, your school, and your community. By definition, it will look different from what you’ve done in the past, and most likely what you will do in the future. If you have to rely on measures you wouldn’t normally use, that’s fine. Do you need to use just teacher input for this year? That’s fine, too. As long as you’re being thoughtful about your process, doing things differently for one year is not only acceptable, it’s highly appropriate.

Dr. Roberts is the Mahurin Professor of Gifted Studies and the Executive Director of The Center for Gifted Studies and The Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky. She is president of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children.  Dr. Plucker is the president of the National Association for Gifted Children and the Julian C. Stanley Professor of Talent Development at Johns Hopkins University, where he works in the Center for Talented Youth and School of Education.

All opinions shared in this commentary are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of WKU, JHU, WCGTC, or NAGC.