Jonathan Plucker: Addressing Excellence Gaps: Universal Screening

Jonathan A. Plucker

Originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of AC&E/Equity & Access

In a previous column, I presented an intervention model to close excellence gaps, achievement gaps between groups of students at high levels of performance. For example, far fewer low-income students perform at high levels of achievement compared to higher-income students. On the 2019 NAEP math test for Grade 4 students, 3% of students receiving lunch assistance scored advanced, compared to 14% not receiving lunch aid.

The intervention model contained seven interventions: Providing better access to opportunities for advanced learning, identifying talented students using universal screening with local norms, including some form of ability grouping, improving K-12 accountability systems, doing a better job with educator preparation and support, and providing psychosocial interventions (but probably only in college). Those six interventions depend on the foundation provided by a seventh intervention, frontloading – preparing students for advanced opportunities by raising the rigor and challenge level of early childhood and elementary experiences.

This column focuses on universal screening, which has recently been identified by researchers as a promising practice to identify a more diverse group of talented students than more traditional approaches. For example, the National Research Center on Gifted Education has found that universal screening alone would substantially increase the odds of a low-income student being identified as gifted.

This makes sense if you consider traditional approaches to talent identification. In most cases, schools accept parent or teacher nominations of students to be screened for academic talent. Athletic, musical, and artistic talent identification work similarly, but with more self-nominations. For example, the soccer coach at your local high school doesn’t have every single student try-out for soccer, nor does the chorus director have every student audition; in both cases, they would almost certainly identify highly talented students who otherwise would have flown under the radar, but we’re OK with that because those areas of talent are considered to be special additions to the regular curriculum.

But finding academic talent can no longer be a nomination-first situation. Parent and teacher nominations favor children with parents who have time to understand the system and students who had high-quality pre-school experiences. Neither are universally available to all students, which is one reason why researchers suspect nomination-first approaches lead to few low-income, Black, or Hispanic students being identified for gifted education programs, therefore leading to excellence gaps.

Universal screening is very straightforward: Rather than wait for nominations, you look at data for every single student. It’s not more complicated than that. As districts around the country have implemented universal screening, we are seeing a wide range of approaches. And researchers certainly recommend several different ways to go about it. These strategies vary widely in complexity and cost, but the end goal is the same: Every single student is screened in some way for academic talent.

Some districts use existing data they have on each student, others administer one or more tests such as the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test or Cognitive Abilities Test. Many appear to administer an additional test then use individually-administered intelligence tests, teacher and parent rating scales, etc., to students identified by the universal screener. But again, I’ve worked with one program that just uses the prior year’s state achievement test data, which allowed them to identify a number of low-income students who otherwise would have been overlooked. How you do it probably doesn’t matter, as long as you ensure every student is being fairly considered.

Universal screening doesn’t close excellence gaps by itself, but it helps identify disadvantaged students who otherwise wouldn’t even be considered though traditional nomination processes.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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