The Tripartite Model of Giftedness

Steven Pfeiffer is first author of the Gifted Rating Scales (GRS). He is a popular speaker on best practices in gifted assessment and how to raise successful and psychologically well-adjusted gifted kids. He is Emeritus Professor at Florida State University. Prior to his tenure at FSU, Dr. Pfeiffer was a Professor at Duke University, where he served as Executive Director of Duke’s gifted program, TIP. He also served as Director of Devereux’s Institute of Clinical Training & Research, headquartered in Villanova, PA.  Author of over 200 articles and book chapters, he is lead author of the Gifted Rating Scales, published by MHS (

The Tripartite Model of Giftedness

There are many different ways to conceptualize giftedness. Sternberg and Davidson suggested at least twenty different ways to view giftedness in their 2005 book. The alternative models imply different ways to define, conceptualize, identify, and nurture what we mean by kids with gifts. The different models reflect, in part, to what extent we view giftedness as a disposition within the child vs. a more contextual view of developmental conditions necessary to allow some individuals to demonstrate superior performance in real-world, culturally valued domains.

My model, the tripartite model of giftedness, is not contradictory to any of the major models that most readers are familiar with. In fact, the tripartite model incorporates elements from a number of the more popular models.  The tripartite model is a practical model, developed based on my experience working closely with highly gifted youth during my tenure as Executive Director of the Duke TIP summer programs. The tripartite model provides three different ways of viewing students with high ability or extraordinary potential. The tripartite model offers three different, complementary ways to conceptualize, identify, and provide evidence-based psycho-educational interventions for gifted learners. The three distinct lenses through which high ability students are viewed within the tripartite model are as follows:

  • Viewing giftedness through the lens of high intellectual ability;
  • Viewing giftedness through the lens of outstanding performance and accomplishments; and
  • Viewing giftedness through the lens of potential to excel

The first perspective of the tripartite model, the high intelligence view, is familiar to most readers. This first view dates back to Charles Spearman and Lewis Terman. Applying this first lens, an IQ test score or cognitive ability test score, or its proxy, can be used to identify students functioning at a certain level considerably above average intellectually. The criterion for high intellectual giftedness should be based on compelling, and scientifically reliable, evidence that the youngster is advanced intellectually, when compared to her or his same-age peers. The first perspective of the tripartite model can follow a general (g) or multidimensional view of intelligence. For example, the popular C-H-C model of cognitive abilities fits nicely within this first lens for viewing giftedness.  However, applying the first lens to operationalize giftedness could also be guided by any other of the other models of human intelligence, such as the structure of intellect model, multiple intelligences, or even recent neuroanatomical models of intelligences. The point of the first lens of the tripartite model is that high intellectual ability defines giftedness.   

The rationale for gifted programs based on viewing giftedness through the first lens of the tripartite model is that students with superior intelligence need, and benefit from, advanced, intellectually challenging and often more fast-paced academic material not typically found in the regular classroom. Based on this first lens or perspective, gifted education would be arrayed to reflect highly accelerated and/or academically advanced and challenging pedagogical approaches. The Johns Hopkins and Duke TIP summer programs are two examples.

The second perspective of the tripartite model views giftedness through the lens of outstanding accomplishments. This second perspective does not scoff at or minimize the value or importance of cognitive ability. However, the second perspective does emphasize viewing giftedness through the lens of a student’s actual performance in the classroom and performance on real-world projects as a core defining characteristic for giftedness in the schools. As we conceptualize giftedness applying the second lens of the tripartite model, evidence of real-world excellence compared to other same-age peers is the sine qua non to qualify a student for gifted programming. Not a high IQ test score. Standardized and rigorously developed portfolio and rubric assessment of actual student products are the templates that should be used to identify high-performing students as gifted through this second lens of the tripartite model.  

Viewing giftedness through the outstanding accomplishments lens, educators, school administrators, school psychologists, and parents would be looking for direct and incontrovertible evidence of authentic academic excellence. Creativity could be emphasized when viewing giftedness through this second lens, since we often expect ingenuity and creativity in judging outstanding real-world thinking and accomplishments. When we developed the Gifted Rating Scales (GRS), now revised and newly standardized with a teacher and parent form (GRS-2), we intentionally considered items such as displays an active imagination and generates many ideas to what if questions for the scale, reflecting our appreciation for the value of reliable assessment of classroom evidence of high levels of creativity. 

The rationale for gifted programs based on an outstanding accomplishments perspective is that students who excel academically have earned and deserve special academic programs and services because of their consistently outstanding effort and superior accomplishments. Gifted education, based on this second lens of outstanding accomplishments, looks somewhat different from gifted education guided by a high intelligence perspective. For example, gifted programs would consist of highly enriched and academically challenging curricula, although not necessarily fast-paced or highly advanced.

The third lens or perspective of the tripartite model is called potential to excel. What do I mean by this third way to view giftedness? In my clinical experience, and in consulting with many educators over 40 years, I have come to appreciate that some children and youth -for any number of reasons, have not been provided nearly enough opportunity or intellectual stimulation. I have also come to recognize that all-too-often, many children are not provided exposure and development of facilitative socio-emotional skills and attitudes that make a real difference in the expression of academic success and intellectual competence. This third perspective of the tripartite model is supported by a growing body of research (for example, Nisbett’s work [2009]). I am sure that most readers can identify with this third perspective and can think of one or more students that they taught or worked with who possessed latent, not-actualized high potential.

Most of us agree that not all children start out on equal footing -on a “level playing field.” Some children from poverty, immigrant families, from homes in which intellectual and academic activities are neither encouraged nor promoted, or children growing up in overcrowded or dangerous communities with limited community or neighborhood resources or educational opportunities, are at a distinct disadvantage to develop their gifts. This was the rationale for the third perspective within the tripartite model

The third perspective implies a prediction that students of high potential will likely flourish and excel when provided with “just the right” special resources and psycho-educational interventions. The assumption underlying this third perspective of the tripartite model is that with time, an encouraging and highly stimulating environment, and the proper social-emotional interventions, these students will actualize their yet unrealized high potential and distinguish themselves from among their same-age peers as gifted and talented.

Gifted programs guided by a potential-to-excel perspective should consist of highly motivating and enriched curricula and instructional approaches that may actually require compensatory interventions. This third category of gifted carries with it a prediction. The prediction is that if the identified student is provided a well-conceived, comprehensive and “high-dosage,” evidence-based set of psycho-educational interventions -often requiring an integrated home component -then she or he will thrive and ultimately appear almost indistinguishable, or at least very similar to, students who are already identified as falling within one of the other two gifted categories, high intelligence or academically gifted learner.

There isn’t a good deal of empirical research supporting -or refuting, for that matter -the hypothesis that there exists this third type of gifted, the diamonds in the rough. Children and youth who will flourish in astounding ways with well-designed and intensive psycho-educational interventions. It is apparent that the psycho-educational interventions need to be comprehensive and high dosage to compensate for the early, missed educational and psycho-social experiences and opportunities. It is also apparent that the earlier educators and school psychologists can identify these young, high potential students, the more likely a number of them will respond favorably to the planned, evidence-based psycho-educational interventions. This is a very exciting and promising area of research opportunity, both in the USA and globally. When we developed the Gifted Rating Scales (GRS), including the new parent scale (GRS-2), we intentionally included non-intellectual rating scale items ( ). We wanted to have behaviors that could be reliably rated that measure motivation, drive, persistence, academic passion and socio-emotional maturity – things that we believe help identify this third group of gifted children and youth -the diamonds in the rough. These items on the new GRS-2 teacher and parent scales reflect important, non-intellectual factors that differentiate successful from less successful gifted students.

In summary, these three categories of the tripartite model constitute three different types of bright children, which reflect different levels and profiles of cognitive and social-emotional abilities. However, the three groups are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, there are many students with exceptionally high IQ score who are also academically gifted learners with a burning passion to learn. The tripartite model, was developed, in part, to reduce much of the acrimony often found in the gifted literature and in the schools when one group of educators, administrators or parents advocate for adopting only one, typically narrowly defined view of giftedness that reflects only high IQ. The tripartite model intentionally goes beyond viewing giftedness as a unitary quality inherent within the child. It embraces multiple ways to view gifted learners, including recognition of non-intellectual factors, the role of the family and environment, and dynamic, developmental considerations. Interested readers may find my 2015 book, Essentials of Gifted Assessment,published by Wiley, informative ( ). The book details how to operationalize the tripartite model.

Grantwriting for Gifted Educators – Program Evaluation Support

Since it’s still January, let’s continue discussing our professional goals for the new year. Let’s focus on your goal to start or increase the success of your grant funding efforts – or maybe that is a goal of your superintendent or department chair.

January is a great time to begin working toward that goal, and as a professional program evaluator and frequent contributor to grant applications, I am both equipped and glad to help you. If you are thinking, “Hm, perhaps my organization can finally write for or be awarded one of these grants this year”, read on!

Grant writing meeting
Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

Over the past 15 years, I have led a team of evaluators, statisticians, and data collectors at Censeo Group, an external evaluation consulting firm. We support school districts, state departments of education, faculty, and grantmakers in implementing and measuring the impact of grant-funded activities. We help educators craft evaluation and research sections of grant proposals and ensure that goals, activities, plans, and personnel are aligned. Our team has evaluated programs across the country at the K12 and postsecondary levels in formal and informal education settings. We have worked with educators who are creating curriculum units and teacher professional development aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), Minecraft activities to help middle school boys and girls develop spatial skills, literacy initiatives, mathematics and Earth science teacher professional development, and online learning for gifted students in language arts instruction.

Censeo Group is currently the external evaluator of a newly-funded School Climate Transformation Grant (SCTG), and we are familiar with federal evaluation requirements for proposal writing and evaluation reporting. We have extensive experience evaluating US Department of Education awards – from Reading Excellent Act and Reading First grants in the 1990s to Javits and current SCTG grant awards.

The Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program at the U.S. Department of Education is by far the largest and most focused grant program for gifted educators. The 2019 appropriation for this program was $12,000,000. As of this writing, there is no information posted about the FY 2020 Javits competition, but if the timeline is consistent with the 2019 competition, the grant application could be available in early May and deadline to submit in early June. The FY2019 competition was open to state educational agencies, local educational agencies, the Bureau of Indian Education, institutions of higher education, and other public and private agencies and organizations. If you are thinking about submitting a Javits grant proposal , we can help you by discussing your project ideas and evaluation plan so that perhaps your program can be one of this year’s Javits awardees.

A good deal of Censeo Group’s evaluation work is with Primary Investigators funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). We are knowledgeable about the formal and informal education grant programs and can help you tailor your proposal for the NSF. A number of completed NSF grants have focused specifically on services for or the study of gifted learners in informal settings, through the NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) grant program, including projects at the Belin-Blank Center and at the University of Connecticut Neag. Gifted researchers at the University of North Texas received an Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program award and researchers at George Washington University (OSPrI project) and SRI International (iSTEM project) received funding through the Discovery Research PreK-12 (DRK-12) program.

Currently, 24 active National Science Foundation (NSF) grants include gifted students in project activities. The majority of these projects, funded by specific NSF science directorates, focus on basic science research and include gifted students in summer experiences or lab visits. For example, the Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST) funded a study of faint dwarf galaxies at Ohio State University (NSF award number 1615838) that includes, as a small component, a dwarf-galaxy-hunting project for gifted high-school students attending a summer program, scholarships for students to attend the program, and a video blog (vlog) and a guide for students interested in scientific careers.

Censeo Group evaluators could support NSF-funded projects that include gifted learners in several ways:

  • Measure changes in student STEM attitudes, learning, and career interest as a result of their engagement in project activities.
  • Investigate the methods and impact of mentoring provided by undergraduate and graduate students.
  • Study the impact of mentoring on project staff.
  • Measure the impact of the summer learning experience and activities.
  • Support building curriculum materials from summer programs into robust learning experiences for informal or formal science settings.
  • Study the process of implementation, and the factors that supported or interfered with project activities in order to improve implementation in subsequent years.
  • Support and evaluate the effectiveness of dissemination and communication efforts.

If you have an idea for a grant submission that you would like to discuss, please email me at We would love to work with you to develop your idea and support your grant writing and grant evaluation efforts to increase research and effective programming for gifted learners. Censeo Group prides itself on helping clients not only set their goals but also attain them!

[It is] All about Parents…

Guest post by Dr. Hanna David

Dr. Hanna David is an Israel-born expert of high ability, giftedness and creativity. She received her PhD “magna cum laude” in educational psychology from Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München and worked at the Tel Aviv University between 1976 and 2004. Dr. David has published six books and over 70 articles in psychology of giftedness, didactics in special education with an emphasis on mathematics for gifted students, gender-related issues of giftedness, educational policy and administration, and sociology of high ability. Currently she is a counselor of gifted children and their families.

During the last 50 years I have met many hundreds – maybe thousands – of parents of gifted children. During my childhood they were mostly parents of friends, family members or neighbors; people who had no idea the word “gifted” existed, and certainly did not consider themselves special or admirable because they “produced” an intelligent, curious, talented daughter or son. These parents were mostly concerned because their child asked for music, gym, or science lessons they could not afford; because the daughter had already read all books in the local library “suitable for her age” and asked for more, or because their son’s teacher complained that the “good, sweet boy” they had raised asked “too many questions”, “spoke up”, or even – god forbid – “argued that the teacher had been mistaken”. Having nobody to consult with, these parents discussed these issues with each other; my parents, who had two such “troublesome” children were included. These talks took usually place in German, Hungarian and Yiddish: most of these parents did not know Hebrew well enough, but they also believed that “children must not know that we worry because of them”. This was my first lesson about gifted children: their parents always want the best for them; they are concerned about them, but too often they do not know how to fulfill their needs.

I started tutoring gifted children when still in high school; it was always their parents who approached me; the parents arranged for the lessons; the parents brought their children to my parents’ apartment and paid for the lessons. This has not changed since then. It is the parents who support their gifted children emotionally, socially, academically – practically in all life aspects. Parents are the soldiers who stand right there, in the battlefront against boredom, solitude and estrangement their children so often feel, as well as against lack of understanding, jealousy, a variety of prejudices and unwanted remarks or advices. 

Dear Parents of gifted children:

You have been blessed with a precious treasure. But this treasure needs maintenance which is your sole responsibility. Sometimes it seems that there is nobody there for help, sometimes it looks like you are not even allowed to complain because your problems seem minor, or because “everybody would love to switch their child’s problems with yours”. Experts in psychology and education of the gifted are there to help you. But of no less importance is expanding your own knowledge about giftedness especially in subjects you need for your child or adolescent gifted girl or boy, such as double-exceptionality or the gifted-disabled, the gifted girl, the creative gifted child, the mathematically or scientifically gifted, the socially gifted, the artist, the stage star, the chess champion – or any other exceptional child.

Hanna David has recently published the first two books in the series Giftedness: Identification, Assessment, Nurturing,
and Treatment

Emotionally, Socially and Learning Disabled Gifted Children: Theory and Treatment


Understanding Gifted Children: Perspectives, Gender Differences and Challenges (Edited by Hanna David)


The third book in this series, Dynamic assessment of gifted children, will be published in October 2020.

Mid-school year reflection

The end of the first semester provides a good opportunity to reflect on the successes that you experienced and the work that you hope to accomplish before the end of the school year. It is a good time to start thinking about professional development, consider changes in your practice, and reaffirm, or perhaps create for the first time goals for the 2019-2020 school year.

Today’s post provides a downloadable worksheet to help you reflect on your classroom instruction, gifted assessment practices, support you are providing gifted learners, policies or procedures that you would like to address, or a problem that has been nagging you.

You will have the chance to reflect on questions questions such as, “What plans did you make for your classroom, district, or department when the school year started? Have you made progress on those goals? Are there professional development opportunities that you have been thinking about? Have you heard about a book or article that could help with your work? Are there opportunities to share your work with colleagues in your district, state, or professional organization?

By the end of the exercise, you will have an action plan, ideas for what you will accomplish each month and how you’ll hold yourself accountable for your goal.

Part 2 – Interview of Dr. Steven Pfeiffer, first author of the Gifted Rating Scales (GRS) and noted authority on giftedness and talent development

This blog is a preview of an interview with Steven Pfeiffer, GRS author, conducted by Dayana Sanchez, bilingual school psychologist and CEO/Founder of 2e Minds. The full interview appears in an upcoming blog post at 2e Minds was created to provide guidance and resources for twice-exceptional (2e) students and their families. Check out the website to learn more about “how to assist 2e children in identifying their strengths, embracing their learning differences, and building essential skills to thrive and tap into their highest potential.”

INTERVIEWER: There are a few conceptualizations of giftedness that I appreciate and use to guide my work with high ability children. I’m an advocate of Joseph Renzulli’s Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness, which proposes that gifted behaviors are the result of an interaction of three clusters of traits: creativity, above-average ability, and task commitment. I also appreciate your Tripartite Model of Giftedness and find it very valuable in my work with twice-exceptional (2e) children. Can you share the key elements of your Tripartite model and the implications of viewing giftedness through each of the three lenses? 

There are many different ways to conceptualize giftedness. There are educational conceptualizations, like Professor Joseph Renzulli’s brilliant three-ring conception. There are also political conceptualizations, philosophic conceptualizations, and psychometrically-driven conceptualizations. The psychometrically-driven models, in fact, are the ones most often taught in school psychology and clinical psychology training programs. No one conceptualization is correct. They are all simply different ways to view kids (and adults) who are, in some way, special or unique.

In addition to Renzulli’s Three-Ring Conceptualization, other often-cited models include Julian Stanley’s mathematically and verbally precocious model (SMPY), Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences model, Francoys Gagne’s developmental, differentialted model of giftedness and talent (DMGT), and Nancy Robinson’s psychometric model- which I was trained on during my graduate school days at UNC-Chapel Hill. There is also Robert Sternberg’s wisdom, intelligence, creativity, synthesiezed (WISCS) model. And dozens others!  Each of these models presents unique ideas and perspectives that tries to explain what is meant by students of “uncommon” or exceptional ability and promise.

The models are similar, but in a few ways, they have unique wrinkles. For example, some of the models view giftedness as unique qualities and characteristics inherent within the child. In other words, gifted kids  are born gifted and are different from kids who aren’t born gifted. Other models view giftedness from a more dynamic, eco-systemic and developmental perspective; the unfolding of abilities that require thoughtful planning and nurturance over time. The most recent consensus among most authorities is that giftedness is best viewed as specific, not generic, and that the expression of giftedness occurs within particular domains. I tend to agree with this position- at least by ages 8, 9, and 10.  

Over the course of my work with high ability students, I developed what I consider a practical model for academic giftedness based on my experience “on the sidelines” as a parent of a young, gifted athlete. Watching my young daughter’s athleticism and skills in soccer nurtured and developed over the years as a member of the U.S. Olympic Development Program helped me formulate my tripartite model of giftedness. The tripartite model offers three different apertures to focus on kids who might be gifted. identify. The tripartite model incorporates these three distinct but complementary lenses or apertures through which one can view giftedness.

The first lens I call the High Intelligence perspective. This first lens is familiar to most readers. An IQ test or its proxy (for example, the SAT test for college admissions) is used to identify students who are functioning at a certain cognitive ability level, considerably above average. This first lens can employ a general [“g”] or multi-dimensional view of intelligence (for example, Cattell-Horn-Carroll model (CHC), structure of intellect, or multiple intelligences view). It can even be based on the newer, neuroanatomical models of giftedness that are appearing in the scientific literature. This first lens views giftedness and high IQ as strongly genetic, and well-established at birth. The rationale for gifted programs based on viewing giftedness through this first aperture of High IQ is that students with superior intelligence need and/or are entitled to advanced, intellectually challenging, and/or more fast-paced academic material, not typically found in most regular classrooms. Another assumption of this first lens of the tripartite model is that students are entitled to special gifted education services throughout their public education.

The second perspective or lens of the tripartite model is called Outstanding Accomplishments. This second viewpoint does not minimize the importance of the IQ or intellectual ability. However, through this second lens, there is a heightened emphasis on a student’s performance in the classroom and on the success of performance on academic tasks. According to this second lens, evidence of academic excellence is the sin qua non to qualify as a gifted student and to qualify for admittance into a gifted program, nor high IQ.  Gifted identification, embracing this second aperture, includes assessment of academic performance – evidence of “authentic” academic excellence. Evidence of creativity is often emphasized when viewing giftedness through this second lens. Obviously, the importance of motivation, drive, persistence and passion- clearly non-intellectual factors- are all considered highly relevant when viewing giftedness from an Outstanding Accomplishments lens. These non-intellectual factors are recognized as impacting the talent development of all students, and critical for high-level academic performance in the classroom (and in life!).

The rationale for gifted programs based on an Outstanding Accomplishments perspective is that students who excel academically have earned and deserve special academic programs because of their outstanding effort and superior classroom accomplishments. Gifted curricula typically would consiste of highly enriched and academically challenging material. Within this second perspective, students are not viewed as “gifted for life.” One practical and exciting implication of the Outstanding Accomplishments perspective is that re-assessments should be conducted every 2-3 years, with opportunities for new students to qualify to enter gifted programs.

The third and final lens of the tripartite model is what I call Potential to Excel. What I mean by this third type of gifted student, within the tripartite model, is that some children – for any number of reasons – have not been provided enough opportunity or stimulation to develop what remains latent and as yet undeveloped or under-developed intellectual or academic gifts. This third group is based on my experience working with many students of unactualized, but obvious high potential, the experience of countless others, and an abundant body of compelling research that I cite in my book, Serving the Gifted.      

I think that we all agree that not all students start out on an equal footing. Some children from poverty, families in which intellectual and educational activities are neither encouraged nor nurtured in the home or community, or in which English is not the primary language spoken in the home, children growing up in rural or overcrowded or dangerous communities where intellectual stimulation and educational opportunities are rare, are all at a distinct disadvantage to develop their gifts. I frequently label kids in this third group as the “almost or potentially gifted student.” From this third perspective or aperture, the student with high potential to excel is viewed as very likely to increase her tested IQ and/or her academic performance when provided with special resources and special attention. The assumption is that with time, an encouraging and stimulating environment, and the proper array and dosage of psycho-educational interventions, these students will eventually actualize their yet unrealized high potential and distinguish themselves from among their peers. There is, in fact, some compelling research to support this very notion. Gifted programs for this third group, the Potential to Excel, should consist of highly motivating and enriched curricula that may include compensatory activities.

I hope that this provides a succinct overview of the Tripartite Model and some of the implications for identification and gifted education programming. 

Creativity and Design Based Learning – Applications to Gifted Education

One of the domains measured by the Gifted Rating Scale is creativity. When we think about creativity, we often think about its role in artistic endeavors. In today’s blog, I wanted to highlight the importance of creativity in research, engineering design, and design-based practices and offer several resources about these practices in gifted education.

At Censeo Group, the external evaluation firm that I lead, our portfolio includes a number of science technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) evaluation projects. Our evaluation team often supports faculty who are developing and researching the effects of STEM curriculum materials and instructional practices on student learning. We recently completed a project supported by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program. The University of Akron Zip to STEM team developed a curriculum unit that integrated engineering and technology into force and motion science instruction. Middle school students in the Akron Public Schools (APS) used technology, including CAD software and a virtual wind tunnel, to design, test, and race a soap box derby mini car. Through this project, 8th grade APS students had the opportunity to experience hands-on, engaging learning, use technology, and apply science concepts to a practical task.

Activities that incorporate the engineering design process or design based learning allow students to engage in hands-on, applied projects in which they search for problems, investigate the viewpoints of those who use a product or engage with a system, work with diverse teammates who bring different perspectives to problem solving, analyze their proposed solution, and iterate to improve solutions. Design based learning processes guide students to deep learning around a practical problem for which students propose solutions.

A recent episode of Bonni Stachowiak’s Teaching in Higher Education Podcast with guest Nicola Ulibarri provides a great introduction to design thinking and the importance of creativity in research and design endeavors. Dr. Ulibarri’s recently-published book, Creativity in Research, is a good resource for researchers and for teachers who are supporting student-led research activities. Although the podcast focuses on teaching in higher education, there are many ideas relevant to K12 educators and gifted education.

Below is a list of articles and books that discuss engineering design and design based thinking in gifted education that provide a good start to learn more about this topic.

Guest Post: Alan S. Kaufman, Some Thoughts About the Super-Gifted

We are grateful that Dr. Kaufman agreed to write a guest post on the Gifted Assessment Insights blog. We hope that you enjoy Dr. Kaufman’s post about super-gifted students.

Alan S. Kaufman, Yale University Child Study Center

As a professional, I have scoffed at headlines about a backwoods teenage genius with an IQ of 190 or an insightful and funny columnist who advertises herself as the smartest person in the world with an IQ of 228. As I argued in IQ Testing 101 and elsewhere: The norms just don’t go that high, stratospheric IQs are imaginary numbers, and they have no scientific justification.

I had to struggle to get David Wechsler to extend the WISC-R norms to 160, even though he insisted that going 4 standard deviations above the mean was nothing more than guesswork. Although professionals I respect—such as Linda Silverman (Giftedness 101) or the late great Julian Stanley at Johns Hopkins—have made the study of super gifted people both an art and science, I have resisted. Certainly the age-old IQ formula of MA divided by CA X 100 permits the mathematical computation of absurdly high IQs, but that formula should have become extinct eons ago along with the woolly mammoth.

As a professional, with a PhD in psychology mentored by super psychometrician Robert L. Thorndike, don’t get me started about superstars with IQs of 200. But as a parent and grandparent… well, that is a bit different. In that domain, there is Jennie who spoke in full sentences before her first birthday, David the musical theater star, Nicole the Emmy-winning producer and film-maker, and Kate the poet. And there is James, who I still call Jamie, who edits the Psychology 101 series that features my book on IQ and Silverman’s on giftedness, and who is among the leading creativity scholars in the world.

When Nadeen used 5-year-old Jamie as her “test subject” for her assessment course at DePaul University, she administered the McCarthy Scales, or at least tried to. As my teaching assistant at University of Georgia, Bruce Bracken, discovered two years earlier when he used Jamie as a demonstration subject for the course on preschool assessment, it was nearly impossible to stay a step ahead of Jamie (Bruce had to use an abundance of creativity—Paul Torrance was chair of the department—and rely on more self-control than he possessed to make it through the class.).

Nadeen faced the same crisis when Jamie decided that he could do a better job of administering the McCarthy Scales than she could. He took the manual and followed the standardized procedures and exact wording as he proceeded to administer two subtests to two different graduate students before Nadeen regained control of the demonstration with as much parental restraint as she could muster. So naturally I used Jamie as my demonstration subject at age 6 for my Wechsler-Binet course.

My TA Leslie was doing a wonderful job administering the 1972 Stanford-Binet to him, even able to keep Jamie under hypnotic control for 45 minutes while managing to pause occasionally to instruct the class on administration subtleties, scoring ambiguities, and techniques for maintaining rapport. She drew on the board Jamie’s abstract design, which he had to draw from memory, and explained that it should be scored 1.5 out of a possible 2. Jamie turned to the board and said, “What??!! That is perfect. Why did I lose half a point? Not fair.” But he was redirected, and the session continued. . . and continued . . . and continued.

On the old Binet, the examiner had to keep testing until the child or adult reached a ceiling. Which meant that the person had to fail all tasks at that level, typically six different tasks. But Jamie got all tasks right at the 10-year level, and kept getting one or two or three correct through Level XIII. My TA was eying me for permission to end the session, which was pushing two hours, even though a legitimate ceiling hadn’t been reached. I avoided eye contact with her and she continued. At Level XIV, he failed the first five tasks, and a visibly relieved Leslie exhaled; one task to go! Then Jamie sailed through “Reconciliation of Opposites” with ease. That meant administering the Average Adult (AA) level to him, the only level that had 8 tasks, in order to get a ceiling. Sensing a rebellion by Leslie and about half the class (the others were caught up in “How high can he go? Just how high is his IQ?”), I relented. We violated the standardization procedures and quit testing without reaching a ceiling. I let everyone leave. And I never even bothered to compute the IQ he would have earned if he had failed all 8 AA tasks, though I knew it was through the roof.

I never tired of using my kids as demonstration subjects, because it allowed me and my various TAs—for a couple of years it was Cecil Reynolds—to instruct the class while Jennie, David, or Jamie would (usually) wait patiently for the feedback to be given to the eager and often brilliant graduate students. Yet one of my favorite stories happened in the real world, not in my classroom. My granddaughter was referred for gifted placement as a second grader in San Diego. When the examiner started to test Nicole, the acronym “K-BIT” stared back at her. “That’s my grandparents’ test,“ she exclaimed, though she had never seen it before. “Now, Nikki Hendrix, let’s save the tall stories for later,” the examiner chastised her. But with a bit of persistence, my granddaughter managed to get the reluctant woman to retrieve the manual from the kit and find the Dedication, which Nicole knew by heart (“To Nikki, with love, from Nana and Papa”); then the evaluation began. Gifted indeed!

So what exactly do I believe about kids or adults with super high IQs? I guess, deep down inside despite my scientist’s skepticism, I think that maybe Marilyn vos Savant did earn an IQ of 228, with a mental age of 22 years 10 months, when she was a girl of 10.

#NAGC19 – Social Media at the NAGC 66th Annual Convention

This year I was unable to attend the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) conference, however, I followed the hashtags #NAGC19 and #NAGC2019 on social media. My thanks to the 200 conference attendees who shared their learning and impressions of the conference. The summary of hashtag activity (created with the free version of Keyhole) shows the wide reach of the social media posts – more than a half-million impressions from tweets and posts. And, this summary does not include posts made on private Instagram accounts!

Social media analysis NAGC19

The overall tone of the posts was positive – with tweets focusing on session content and excitement about being at the conference. The post that received the highest sentiment – retweets and posts – was by swanwick_w of the hot air balloon that was part of the Family Day activities. Several people posted photos of this gorgeous balloon and about the success of Family Day.

The post with the highest engagement was from Anne Rinn, congratulating student winners at the NAGC Research Gala.

Although the majority of posts were positive, I was curious about those tagged as having negative sentiments. These posts were related to two issues: 1) improving services, and 2) better understanding student needs. The first was a thread about perfection and anxiety in gifted students:

The second set of tweets tagged as negative were discussions about the “Confronting Pseudoscience in Gifted Education” session presented by Kate Snyder (@DressageProf), Bess Wilson, Matt McBee (@TunnelOfFire) Scott J Peters (@realScottPeters) and Frank Worrell.

The result that most surprised me was the infrequency of posts focused on assessment. Only 21 tweets included the words “assessment”, “test” or “testing”. These tweets, focused on improving equity and psychometric strength of assessment, clearly aligned with our interests of a valid, reliable, and fair revision to the GRS. We hope that the posts on the Gifted Assessment Insights blog and our Twitter account (@Gifted_Assess) can help support important discussions about assessment in gifted education.

The other top influential tweets celebrated the successful conference:

Thank you to the attendees who posted on social media so that those of us who could not attend could still experience a bit of the conference.

2-part interview of Dr. Steven Pfeiffer, first author of the Gifted Rating Scales (GRS) and noted authority on giftedness and talent development

This blog is a preview of an interview with Steven Pfeiffer, GRS author, conducted by Dayana Sanchez, bilingual school psychologist and CEO/Founder of 2e Minds. The full interview appears in an upcoming blog post at 2e Minds was created to provide guidance and resources for twice-exceptional (2e) students and their families. Check out the website to learn more about “how to assist 2e children in identifying their strengths, embracing their learning differences, and building essential skills to thrive and tap into their highest potential.”

Introduction of Dr. Steven Pfeiffer

 Steven Pfeiffer a a popular speaker on topics related to raising successful, high-ability children. He is Emeritus Professor at Florida State University. Prior to his tenure at FSU, Dr. Pfeiffer was a Professor at Duke University, and served as Executive Director of Duke’s gifted program, TIP. He also served as Director of Devereux’s Institute of Clinical Training & Research, headquartered in Villanova, PA.  Trained as a clinician, Dr. Pfeiffer enjoys an active clinical and consulting practice, and speaks internationally on topics related to successful parenting and the social-emotional needs of high ability kids. Author of 200 articles and book chapters, he is lead author of the Gifted Rating Scales, published by MHS. Among his most recent books, he authored, Serving the Gifted (2013; Routledge) and Essentials of Gifted Assessment (Wiley; 2015). He is Editor-in-Chief of the APA Handbook on Giftedness and Talent (2017), Springer’s Handbook of Giftedness in Children (2018, Second Edition), and The Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted: What do we Know?, co-edited with Tracy Cross and Maureen Neihart (2015; Prufrock Press).  His website can be found at:

INTERVIEWER: There is a lot to explore with regards to the conceptualization of giftedness, so I’d like to start by narrowing our focus down. Imagine aliens arrive on Earth, and you have the task of communicating with them about the future of education on our planet. How would you describe giftedness to these aliens? What would be some key elements or pieces of information that they would need to understand to grasp the construct of giftedness fully? And by the way, these aliens have very short attention spans!

What a creative and fun question to start off this interview! I would probably begin by taking the aliens on a tour.  I would show the aliens – hopefully they are friendly creatures! – a few ‘typical’ classrooms, both in the USA, and classrooms across the planet. So that the aliens could observe and make their own initial inferences about what actually occurs in typical classrooms, both in the elementary grades and in the middle and high school grades.

I’d also invite them to join me in observing gifted classes in action, both in the public schools and in private and boarding schools, and in summer programs. I would encourage them to make their own initial inferences and hypotheses about what they observed. Then I’d invite them to ask me questions about what they saw and their impressions of regular and gifted education (and special education!) on Earth.

My hope would be that they would accurately describe the state of affairs of regular and gifted education in 2019-2020 on Earth!  This would save me the chore of having to explain for them typical curriculum and instructional pedagogy on our planet!

Of course, I would explain the history of how we have defined “gifted” and the challenges that we still face – almost 150 years later – in agreeing upon our definitions and how to properly go about identifying gifted students! MHS, my test publisher, would insist that I show them our new Gifted Rating Scales products, as an example of how we’ve gone beyond the IQ test in identifying gifted students in the schools! What would be particularly enjoyable would be to dialogue with them, over a nice bottle or two of wine, about the exciting innovations that are occurring here in the USA and internationally in terms of educational initiatives – for regular learners, special-needs students, and gifted learners. I think that it would be valuable to include discussions on what’s happening here in America and globally in serving special needs learners with disabilities.  To provide the aliens with a full and complete picture of the state-of-education here on Earth!

I guess I would invite a few colleagues in the gifted field to join me, people who, in my opinion, are some of the leading thinkers on gifted education – folks like Joyce VanTasel-Baska, David Yun Dai, Elizabeth Shaunessy-Dedrick, Sally Reis and Joe Renzulli, Carol Tomlinson, and Javier Touron, from Spain. We’d certainly need more than two bottles of wine with this group!

INTERVIEWER: Steven, many people still view high IQ as the defining element in gifted identification. As a school psychologist, I’m familiar with the research supporting the validity of the IQ construct, and I understand that IQ predicts school performance. I see how this can lead to the, in my opinion, outdated conclusion that high IQ equals gifted. I’m also aware of all the limitations of IQ tests and the many factors that can influence test-taking performance. Can you share your thoughts on the “high IQ equals gifted” line of reasoning? 

I’m happy to offer an opinion on this issue. As you may know, I actually wrote a book on this very topic, published by Wiley in 2015!  It’s title is, Essentials of Gifted Assessment. Readers interested in a more detailed discussion will find the book informative! And it’s easily available on   

There are many different ways to conceptualize giftedness. Not one way. The IQ equals gifted and gifted equals high IQ is but one, albeit a very popular way, that many educators and psychologists view giftedness. There are at least four popular and very different ways to conceptualize. The most well-known of the four is the traditional psychometric view- which puts great value on a youngster’s performance on an IQ test. Talent development models, on the other hand, don’t discount the IQ score, but emphasize the dynamic unfolding of a youngster’s abilities in concert with the important role that their environment plays in nurturing the unfolding of their abilities into domain-specific skills and talents.      

The expert performance perspective certainly places the least importance on genetics, individual differences, or an IQ test score in explaining how an individual progresses from neophyte to competent and on to expert in any number of fields. Finally, the multiple intelligences model views high IQ intelligence as but one of many types of gifts that a person can have.

And a fifth model is my own, the tripartite model of giftedness. The tripartite model views high IQ as one of three types of academic giftedness. In my tripartite model, outstanding performance is a second type of giftedness. A child need not have a high tested IQ to be gifted, based on this alternative lens through which to view giftedness. And the third lens within the tripartite model is uncanny potential to excel. 

What I’ve tried to explain is that not all of the models place the same importance on the IQ score in defining gifted. However, the IQ score still remains the pre-eminent metric, both here in the USA and globally, for defining gifted.

One final point bears mentioning. Today’s IQ tests are far superior to the first-generation IQ tests that I was trained on! The newer Wechsler Scales, Standford Binet-5, and Woodcock Johnson IV, and the Differential Abilities Scales-2nd Edition, for example, are all well-designed, carefully normed, and reflect our most recent thinking on the universally-recognized hierarchical Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) theory of cognitive abilities. They are reliable and valid-albeit not perfect, measures of intelligence!