Here’s what parents need to know about these programs:
- “Gifted” can mean a lot of different things. Typically, students identified as “gifted” are those who are able to learn at a faster pace or reach higher levels of achievement in a particular learning area, compared to peers. In many cases, students who are gifted in one area—whether that’s an academic subject or a creative or athletic passion—are still learning at an average pace in others. “Twice-exceptional” students are gifted in one learning area and also have a disability in another; for example, a student with dyslexia who is gifted in math, or a student with ADHD who is an advanced reader and writer. (Here are some myths and facts about twice-exceptional students from Understood.org.)
- Schools give students access to accelerated learning in many different ways. For younger students, this might include one-on-one or small group time throughout the school day with a teacher who can offer more advanced instruction. As students get older, they might encounter separate advanced courses (like “honors” or “college prep” classes), or they might be able to enroll in classes targeted at a higher grade level. Along with a ton of variety in what’s on offer, the quality of these offerings varies a lot, too.
- Some districts offer entire schools—or smaller, separate programs within schools—dedicated to accelerated learning. These might be called “gifted and talented” (GATE) or “talented and gifted” (TAG) programs. (Yes, it would be nice if everyone could agree on one acronym.) In these programs, learning might happen at a faster pace than traditional schools. Students might cover more ground in a single school year, tackle more challenging assignments, or have access to more individualized learning opportunities that let them dive deeper into their particular areas of interest.
- Admission to these programs varies by district—and the process can be complicated. Some schools use a test-based admissions model. Usually, this means either all students in the district are tested at an early age, or families may opt their child into testing. Other districts use a lottery system, in which students who qualify based on grades or test scores are selected randomly.
- Accelerated courses in individual subjects are also an option. This will become more common as your child reaches middle and high school. Your child’s school or district might offer, for example, an accelerated math program for students who qualify. Or they might allow students to skip introductory-level courses. At the high school level, Advanced Placement coursework can offer your high schooler the chance to test out of introductory college courses once they get there. While less widely available, the International Baccalaureate program (or IB) is similar to Advanced Placement.
- Traditional “tracking” isn’t as common as it used to be, but you might still encounter it. “Tracking” is the process of separating students, usually fairly early on, so that some students go through more rigorous courses while other students follow the less rigorous course progression. Often, students will take the same courses, but “honors” or “advanced” students will learn at a more accelerated pace and cover more material.
- Accelerated learning programs raise important questions about equity. Research shows that programs for gifted students tend to serve a disproportionate number of white and Asian American students. Even in diverse districts, Black and Latino students, students from low-income backgrounds, and students with disabilities tend to be under-represented in gifted programs. While lotteries can address some of these inequities, the gaps persist.
How do you access accelerated learning opportunities for your child?
- Find out what’s on offer in your school or district. As a first step, check your school district’s website to learn about how they handle students who are ready for accelerated learning. Your school or district might also offer extracurricular opportunities to deepen your child’s learning.
- Ask your child’s teacher about opportunities. Especially for younger children, their teacher might be able to accommodate their needs right in their existing classroom, by providing extended learning opportunities.
- If you think your child might be considered “twice-exceptional,” seek an evaluation for them. In some cases, giftedness in one area can mean that a disability in another area can go overlooked (or vice-versa). It’s important to understand that students who excel in a particular aspect of learning may still need support in other areas—and they may even qualify for special education support.
A solid place to start when you're exploring school options. We especially appreciate GreatSchools.org's thoughtful approach to school ratings.
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