What’s the Best-Kept Secret in Gifted Education? Above-Level Testing.

We have said it before: the secret of above-level testing is really not much of a secret. It’s used extensively by university-based centers of gifted education.  Unfortunately, it is under-utilized by schools. This secret is hiding in plain sight!

What is above-level testing and how can it be used? Above-level testing is useful for decisions about:

  1. Identifying a student for a gifted program
  2. Determining what a student is ready to learn next
  3. Informing decisions about subject-matter acceleration
  4. Informing decisions about readiness to skip a grade

“Above-level testing” is exactly what it sounds like:  Give a younger student a test that was developed for older students. 

This idea was pioneered over one hundred years ago by Dr. Leta Hollingworth, sometimes called the “mother” of gifted education.  This concept was fully developed by Dr. Julian Stanley in the 1970s when he devised the “Talent Search” in which 7th and 8th graders took the college admissions exam, the SAT. 

Fast forward to the present day, and above-level testing is used extensively in outside-of-school programs for gifted students. In fact, hundreds of thousands of students around the world take above-level tests each year as part of university-based talent searches, such as the one offered by the Belin-Blank Center.  Some of these tests used are the SAT, ACT, and I-Excel.

Unfortunately, above-level tests are not used extensively in typical school gifted programs, but we would like to change that!

Academically talented students tend to perform extremely well on tests developed for their own age group. They do so well that they get everything (or almost everything) right, and we don’t really know what the extent of their talents might be. 

Psychologists call this “hitting the ceiling” of the test.

Think of it like a yardstick: The grade-level “yardstick” measures only 36 inches. If the student is 40 inches tall, we can’t measure accurately by using only a grade-level yardstick. What we need is a longer yardstick, and a harder test. An above-level test, one that is developed for older students, provides that longer yardstick and successfully raises the ceiling for that talented student.

above-level testing

The advantages of above-level testing include discovering “talented” and “exceptionally talented” students. In the figure, the bell curve on the left shows a typical group of students. A few students (the dark blue portion of the group) earn very high scores. They score at the 95th percentile or above when compared to their age-mates.

These are the students who “hit the ceiling” of the grade-level test. 

If that group of students takes a harder test — an above-level test that was developed for older students — voila! We see a new bell curve (the one on the right). The harder test spreads out the scores of the talented students. Now, we can better see what these students have already mastered and what amount of challenge they are ready for.

Why does this matter? Knowing how students performed on an above-level test helps us to give the students, their families and their educators better advice about the kinds of educational options the students might need.

For example, does this student need educational enrichment? Would that student benefit from moving up a grade level or two in math? Would yet another student benefit from grade-skipping?

Organizations such as the Belin-Blank Center who have used above-level testing for years. We have developed rubrics to help educators and parents understand the student’s above-level test scores and relate them to appropriately challenging educational options. In just one or two hours of testing, we are able to get important information about the student’s aptitudes.

Imagine you are working with two 5th grade students, Jessica and Mary.

Both of them have scored at the 99th percentile on the mathematics portion of their state test when compared to other 5th graders. They are both strong in math, but we don’t have specific information about the extent of their skills.  What should they learn next?

Psychologists say that these students have “hit the ceiling of the test” because they got everything (or almost everything) right on the grade-level test. What we need is a harder test that would more accurately measure their talents and help us to tailor instruction to their specific needs.

Rather than creating a special test for these students, we gave them I-Excel, which contains 8th grade content.  Jessica scored at the 85th percentile when compared to 8th graders, and Mary scored at the 20th percentile when compared to 8th graders. 

Both students have shown on the 5th grade-level test that they are very good at math compared to typical students in their 5th grade regular classroom. But their above-level test scores show that Jessica is ready for much more challenge in math than Mary.

Jessica likely needs acceleration, while Mary may benefit from enrichment. It would have been impossible to see this difference if we had only been using their grade-level scores.

Above-level testing is key to helping us tailor educational programs for gifted students. It helps us to understand a student’s need for challenge in specific subject areas and to act on the information appropriately.

We at the Belin-Blank Center are thrilled to be able to provide educators with specific information about your students via the in-school testing option for I-Excel, an above-level test for talented 4th – 6th graders.

For more information about how this could work in your school, see www.i-excel.org and www.belinblank.org/talent-search, or contact assessment@belinblank.org.

Students in 7th – 9th grade also have an opportunity for above-level testing by taking the ACT through the Belin-Blank Center. Due to the pandemic, ACT has prioritized testing 11th and 12th graders. We expect to be able to offer above-level testing in spring 2022. If you would like to be notified when we begin offering ACT testing again, please email us at assessment@belinblank.org and we will add you to the list.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s