Broaden GEP selection criteria for greater equity

Wednesday's report on how children from higher socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to attend "better" schools makes for grim reading ("Study: Kids from affluent families more likely in IP, GEP schools").

It suggests that gifted children born into poorer families are not receiving an education suited to their unique needs. It is, thus, essential that we review the means by which the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) picks students.

Currently, students are selected through two rounds of examinations testing English, mathematics and general ability. The top 1 per cent of students who perform well are offered admission into the GEP.

Such a system wrongly assumes that giftedness is based on test-taking ability alone.

This is untrue - giftedness is defined by unique ways of learning and thinking that often cannot be captured in examinations.

In fact, many gifted individuals go undetected because of their unwillingness to take, or inability to excel in, tests.

Standardised testing, therefore, perpetuates the advantages enjoyed by the wealthy within a competitive education system.

Studies have shown that there often is a correlation between socio-economic status and performance in such tests, attributed to the presence of a more intellectually stimulating environment in more privileged households.

Less privileged gifted students are, thus, rarely "discovered" because of the limitations of standardised tests.

In fact, disadvantaged students are often untested, as they lack the confidence to take the tests because of weaker classroom performance.

Less affluent parents may also lack awareness in this area, compared with their privileged counterparts, and, thus, fail to give the necessary encouragement to their offspring to go for testing.

This results in a selection pool skewed towards the privileged, who have a better understanding of giftedness, resulting in the over-representation of the elite in the GEP.

Significant consequences exist for undetected gifted students. Many lose interest in school because of boredom. They may become academic underachievers, or engage in disruptive or destructive behaviour.

Such students are also often ostracised by their peers because of their eccentric interests. They may develop poor self-esteem because they do not know how to deal with this alienation.

Timely identification is, therefore, essential for the well-being of gifted children.

The Education Ministry should re-examine its assumptions about giftedness and broaden its identification criteria to include more subjective measures.

Guidelines given to assessors should be sufficiently flexible to consider socio-economic context and unusual manifestations of giftedness, for instance, non-traditional knowledge.

By moving away from the blunt instrument of cut-off scores and paying greater consideration to the socio-economic context of students, greater equity can be achieved in GEP selection.

Ng Qi Siang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2016, with the headline 'Broaden GEP selection criteria for greater equity'. Print Edition | Subscribe