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Why Gifted Latinos Are Often Overlooked And Underserved

Student artwork from Copper Canyon Elementary in Arizona, a school with an exemplary gifted program.

Three million school children in the U.S. are identified as gifted. That's roughly the top 10 percent of the nation's highest achieving students.

But Rene Islas, head of the National Association for Gifted Children, says tens of thousands of gifted English language learners are never identified. We sat down with Islas and asked him why.

He started out by explaining that there are several different measures for identifying gifted children. The most common in schools is recognizing achievement, above grade level work. But that poses a problem for English language learners, or ELLs, he says.

Is that because not being fluent in English masks their giftedness?

I can give you some personal experience about this. My mother, a single mom in Tucson, Ariz., worked hard to put me in the best school she could afford. I was labeled ELL. That meant a watered down curriculum and not being exposed to learning opportunities. It wasn't until she moved me to a more affluent, white neighborhood school that educators recognized that I had more potential than people at my previous school recognized.

Even when schools identify ELL students as gifted, you say the impulse is not to place them in accelerated programs, despite evidence that they benefit from more challenging work while they're learning English.

It's leaving talent on the table when you have these high performing students but you're restraining them. Gifted [ELL] students are actually harmed if they're held back. To me, the real issue is, how many geniuses are being hidden within their school system?

What about the process for identifying gifted ELLs? When schools test ELLs for giftedness, they often rely on observation and prompts consisting of symbols, manipulatives, spacial relationships and patterns. Are these non-verbal tests effective?

The assumption is that if you take away the language barrier, you can make a neutral assessment. We're finding out that's not true and this is a barrier for Spanish speaking students. The consensus out there is that you need multiple measures [verbal and non-verbal] to identify gifted students with language disadvantages.

What about IQ tests?

It's one identification model often used, even though it's difficult to measure true IQ because of language barriers.

In fact, you argue that schools' over-reliance on IQ tests is one reason gifted programs are so racially and ethnically homogeneous. The research, meanwhile, shows that all gifted kids, including ELLs, share an important trait — advanced academic ability.

Researchers have found that a gifted child often knows 60 percent or more of the curriculum that'll be presented in a full [school] year. So imagine if you knew almost two thirds of the content the first day of school.

What about children of immigrant parents who are recent arrivals or are in the U.S. illegally? If their child is gifted and bored to death in school, how likely is it that they'll demand that their child be tested or placed in a more challenging academic program?

There's fear involved when it comes to Hispanic students in particular. There's [also] a high premium on assimilating, fitting in. These are disincentives to go out and apply for a gifted and talented [program]. Our association, NAGC, is often the first stop for parents who encounter those barriers

Other than NAGC's advocacy for these students, aren't there laws that protect the rights of gifted ELL's the way the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — IDEA — protects students with learning disabilities?

Federal law does not require support for gifted students.

On a final note, under the new federal education law — Every Student Succeeds Act — states for the first time will be required to break down and disclose gifted students' achievement data. School districts will also have to show that teachers who work with gifted students are getting the training they need. It's unclear though what the consequences are if they don't.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit

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