The first goal of this article is to discuss the role of nonverbal ability tests in the identification of academically gifted children. I note that most nonverbal tests measure verbally mediated cognitive processes, that they are neither “culture free” nor “culture fair,” and that we have known these facts for a very long time. I show that selecting students for gifted and talented programs on the basis of such tests would exclude the majority of the most academically accomplished students in all ethnic groups. The second goal is to propose a better method for identifying gifted students. I argue that the critical issue is readiness for a particular type of educational opportunity. The cognitive aspects of readiness are evidenced first in students’ levels of knowledge and skill in particular domains and secondarily in their abilities to reason in the symbol systems used to communicate new knowledge in these domains. This applies to both minority and majority students. Therefore, the most academically talented minority students are those who show the strongest current achievement in particular domains and the best ability to reason in the symbol systems required for the acquisition of new knowledge in those domains. I also argue that, although current accomplishment can be measured on a common scale, judgments about potential must always be made relative to circumstances.
PUTTING THE RESEARCH TO USE:
Discovering which characteristics to measure on selection tests requires a careful consideration of the knowledge, skills, motivation, and other personal attributes that are required for success in particular academic programs. At the very least, programs for the gifted need to distinguish between the academic needs of students who currently show academic excellence and the needs of those who show lesser accomplishments, but have potential for developing academic excellence. The most important aptitudes for future academic accomplishment in a domain are current achievement in that domain and the ability to reason in the symbol systems in which new knowledge is communicated. For both minority and nonminority students, verbal and quantitative reasoning abilities are much better predictors of academic success than nonverbal, figural reasoning abilities. In fact, some students with high nonverbal abilities are actually less likely than other students to develop academic excellence. Further, many of the most academically capable Black students score poorly on such tests. Although accomplishments can be estimated using common norms, potential must always be judged relative to circumstances. It is recommended, therefore, that programs use common aptitude measures, but uncommon cutoff scores (e.g. rank within group) when identifying those minority students most likely to profit from intensive instruction. Tests of nonverbal, figural reasoning abilities are a helpful adjunct for both minority and nonminority admissions – but evidence shows that they should be measures of last resort, not first resort. When used alone, such tests increase selection bias while appearing to reduce it.