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In the support group for parents of gifted (FHPOGS) that I belong to we have annual parent requests for meetings to explain various school administered tests and what the results mean. Testing can be an involved topic and it is easy to leap to conclusions when looking at a single number. But what if one test shows high percentile results, and another shows only average ones? Or what if one year a student qualifies for the gifted program and another year they do not? What is a nationally normed test and how is it different from the State Achievement test my kid takes every year?

I often refer to the Iowa Acceleration Scale Form when I talk about the three types of tests used to evaluate students:


Following are brief descriptions of these three measures. Infinitely greater detail can be easily found on the web and through information aggregators like


An achievement test measures skills and knowledge learned in a given grade level when the grade level of the student matches the grade level of the test. These tests clearly state that they are Achievement tests. Some are nationally normed (students are compared to a national standard of achievement among other students in the same grade level) and some are state or district created instruments.

In recent years, achievement tests have been expanded to measure proficiency levels under No Child Left Behind. States also create achievement (proficiency) tests to determine which schools are meeting curricular standards and are considered by some to be more a measure of the school than of the student. It is not unusual for a high ability student to have a lower achievement score – especially if they have been unchallenged in the regular classroom. In a bizarre twist, some schools will penalize high ability students for lower achievement scores by denying them entry into the very programs that would challenge them.

In the world of public education, a parent may receive one letter from the state acknowledging their child has gifted status and another, from the school, saying they are not gifted enough for service. I have known exceptionally and profoundly gifted students who were denied entry to a gifted and talented program because of low achievement scores. And I have known high achieving students who qualified for gifted programs and then struggled to succeed because they were not high ability students.

A common misconception about high ability students is that they are high achievers. A high ability student may or may not be interested in doing well in school (or on a test) and it is not uncommon for them to underachieve. An example: A high achieving child will eagerly study the dictionary for a chance at being a finalist in the Scripps Spelling Bee. A gifted child will agree to enter a Spelling Bee because a favorite teacher asks them to, or because it might prove “interesting” or maybe because they want to see how far they can get without studying. Really. High ability children are not often motivated by grades; high achieving children probably are. (for other excellent comparisons see: Bertie Kingore, Ph.D. “High Achiever, Gifted Learner, Creative Thinker.”)

Unfortunately the confusion between High Ability and High Achievement often bubbles over into the politics of education see Separate-But-Equal and The Trouble with Geniuses – Part Two. I think that many misconceptions about giftedness stem from the confusion of the two measurements. A teacher without gifted training might see a high ability score for a student with a low achievement score and conclude that the student is lazy or immature. A teacher (or parent) with training would understand that this student can not rise to a greater challenge unless he/she is presented with the opportunity to do so – and will seek out accelerative options (like using pre-testing or curriculum compacting) for the bored or disinterested learner in order to re-engage them.


An aptitude test uses an out-of-grade-level test to measure how a student problem-solves. An aptitude test indicates how a student will solve a problem on material he or she has not yet been introduced to. These tests (commonly the EXPLORE, PLUS or SCAT (for elementary students) and SAT or ACT for seventh through ninth graders) may indicate aptitude in a specific subject area. Scoring for an aptitude test depends on the age of the student and the test administered but usually is expressed as a rank within the test group. This can be useful in recognizing a special talent area – which is why the Talent Search organizations use them to identify candidates for their programs.

If you have a student who has hit a ceiling on ability or achievement tests in a particular area, are considering acceleration, or you suspect a profound or exceptional gift in your student, you should consider Talent Search testing. Compare programs – and total costs – you do not have to live near the program to test for it. Online Talent Search resources are abundant.

National/International Programs include:

Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth
(also has a really cool website we used as our Home Page for many years: Cogito. JHU-CTY also is the only Talent Search offering a Spatial Battery Test).
Northwestern University Midwest Academic Talent Search

Duke University Talent Identification Program
(also publisher of the Duke Gifted Letter)

The University of Iowa Belin-Blank Exceptional Student Talent Search (BESTS)


An ability test is also called an IQ (Intelligence Quotient) test – even though the score from an intelligence test is no longer expressed as an actual quotient. Ability scores are typically a measure of rank on a Gaussian Bell Curve with 100 being average. That is why school, district and/or state guidelines will define “giftedness” or “service models” based on on a deviation above the mean. e.g. in Ohio one of the measurements for gifted identification: the student must “score two standard deviations above the mean minus the standard error of measurement on an intelligence test,”


If x= the average (mean) IQ of 100
1S represents one standard deviation from the mean, and
2S represents two standard deviations from the mean.


Typically only 2 percent of the population has an ability score above 130. The percentage of the population with ability scores above 145 is less than 1/10 of 1 %. An ability score of 115-129 is between one and two standard deviations above the mean. An ability score of 130-144 is between two and three standard deviations above the mean. An ability score of 145 and above is three or more standard deviations above the mean.

{note: the curve is an approximation and doesn’t fit the upper ends of IQ as predicted. Terman (the inventor of the Standford-Binet) found many more students on the upper end than expected.}

There are many different tests for ability including: Woodcock Johnson Cognitive Ability Scale, Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, Weschler – administered individually and group administered tests like the Otis Lennon, Slosson and Cognitive Abilities Test. Individual tests are the most accurate and most descriptive and are often required for acceleration consideration.

Ability scores are reliably constant for an individual – although some point variations can occur depending on the test used and the student’s tolerance for testing on that particular day. Group testing can introduce a number of different variables – someone tapping their foot or coughing or other distraction can negatively impact scores – so testing more than once in a group test environment would be helpful if a private test can not be arranged. In Ohio, schools are required to offer gifted screening testing regularly and any parent, teacher, friend and even the student themselves, can request one. If your child is “on the bubble” for your school’s service model you should consider retesting as a valid option.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Francisca permalink
    June 9, 2011 1:24 pm

    This is really good. I have no prior knowlegde of high ability program and did not even know that may son has been involved in the testing until I received the result in the mail.
    This is educative for me. Thank you!

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