Baylor Talent Identification Program finds, supports gifted precollegiate students

The Baylor Talent Identification Program (TIP) is a program to identify potential in fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth graders. Photo courtesy of Baylor TIP

By Jenna Fitzgerald | Copy Editor

Baylor may offer an array of networks and programming for its students, faculty, staff and alumni, but it has recently added a new group to the list of populations it serves: fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth graders.

Baylor’s Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, which is housed in Baylor’s School of Education, is in the process of launching the Baylor Talent Identification Program (TIP). According to its website, the TIP uses above-level testing “to identify exceptional talent in STEM and the humanities and provide world-class learning opportunities commensurate with students’ exceptional potential.”

While this is a new endeavor for Baylor, Dr. Todd Kettler — department chair of educational psychology — said talent identification programs have been around since 1979. He said Baylor was prompted to establish the TIP following the closing of the Duke University Talent Identification Program on Oct. 7, 2020.

“Historically, the way it worked is you really had those three talent development centers — you had Duke, Johns Hopkins and Northwestern — and they sort of divided up the United States and worked with various states,” Kettler said. “Duke had a 16-state region, including Texas, so they had the entire South. They went as far west as Texas, as far north as Iowa. And when Duke stopped operating, basically you had these 16 states that then had no sort of hub for the talent identification process, and we were trained to fill that role.”

Kettler said talent identification programs typically follow a yearly schedule in which they test students from October to February, analyze results and notify students of their status by May. However, he said the TIP is doing a “soft launch” this year to reach students who have not been able to participate in talent identification programs for the last couple of years.

“The downside is, because of COVID and Duke shutdown in 2020, there’s been no talent search available for students in seventh grade, eighth grade or probably even some of the ninth graders right now,” Kettler said. “So what we’re doing with the soft launch is saying, ‘All of those kids who missed it for the last two or three years during COVID? Come on. Sign up.’”

Kettler said the TIP developed its own tests: the College Readiness Assessment, which is similar to the SAT, and the Indicator of Academic Readiness, which is similar to the ACT.

“We use those tests with seventh grade students so that we have a very high ceiling,” Kettler said. “When you work with gifted students, a test ceiling means that if you use a normal test, a lot of students who are performing in this high cognitive range — the kind of performance we would call gifted performances — they’re going to just score perfect. Sometimes when we study, well how did gifted kids do on the STAAR, a lot of them had the highest score possible, so you can’t tell who’s really the best because they’re all lumped together at the highest possible score. So when you give an above-level test, we can actually discriminate the difference between pretty good, really good and crazy good.”

Kettler said the TIP is aiming to allow a broader range of students to have the opportunity to reap the benefits of the program.

“One of our mottos for the program is ‘rethinking talent and potential,’” Kettler said. “So you think, ‘Well, why did it need to be rethought? It’s been around for 40 years. Why did it need to be rethought?’ One of the reasons I believe it needs to be rethought — and this is empirically true — historically, the students who have been identified as the highest performers in these types of talent search assessments in middle school have largely been majority culture from economically affluent homes, well-educated parents, and these students have had many opportunities to develop their academic performance skills over time. I think we are in a situation where that level of narrow profile is unacceptable, and we’re trying to expand what that pool of students who have potential looks like.”

While a lot of the students who participate in talent identification programs have already been identified as gifted within their schools, Dr. Jennifer Robins — director of the Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development — said the TIP is trying to reach students who have unidentified potential.

“That’s been a criticism of gifted education, is that it’s sometimes very limited to a certain group of students, a small number of students,” Robins said. “A lot of times, people say, ‘We’re going to look at the top 5% of students.’ So opening it up to the top 25% makes a big difference, and we’re really not even limiting it to that. If a teacher or parent says, ‘I think this child really needs to be part of this program,’ we’re not going to limit that because they may see potential that’s not showing up on a standardized test.”

Robins said students can sign up to take the tests through their parents or their school districts, and the tests are offered in both online and paper formats. Once students receive their detailed score reports, they may be eligible to participate in certain Baylor programs like University for Young People or Super Saturdays, which give them a chance to take a variety of enrichment courses on Baylor’s campus.

“We’re not going to say there’s a magic score,” Robins said. “I’m going to look at a child and say, ‘They have a great strength in language arts, and I can see this because they submitted a short story they wrote, and their teacher highly recommended them.’ That’s the kind of student we want in here, because not all students test well. When I see a child on paper, I don’t know that child. So I want more information to know, would this program be something that would benefit this student?”

Kettler said participation in programs like University for Young People and Super Saturdays offers many benefits to students, such as exposing them to more subjects and refining their skills.

“So maybe students come to campus and they take courses in STEM areas or humanities areas or economics or political science — the types of subjects that they may have mildly touched on in their high school and middle school curriculum, but they can really learn at extensive levels of depth and complexity through our programs,” Kettler said. “So maybe students identify career pathways that they’re more interested in that they just hadn’t thought of or hadn’t had opportunities to explore.”

Kettler said it’s important for Baylor to reach out to this age group not only to market Baylor to exceptionally talented students but also because it is in line with Baylor’s “research mission for human flourishing.”

“While we think of our program as a laboratory so to speak — even though it’s not a traditional science laboratory, it’s more of a pedagogy laboratory — how can we educate these kids in the most efficient way?” Kettler said. “We match content to ability so that as we learn this sort of science of developing talent, we’re going to then write those papers, write those books, give those presentations so that schools can then do a better job educating this population.”

Ultimately, Robins said the TIP challenges gifted students and fosters a safe space where they can be themselves. She said the mission of the program is to find those students so that they can give them those opportunities to grow.

“My hope is that this fills a gap and really allows us to locate or find students with potential that we may not have found otherwise by just having them submit a test,” Robins said. “My goal would be that this is a true talent search. We are looking for talent, whatever that might look like. So having parents and school districts and teachers helping us identify the student who may not have been selected for other things, but we see that there’s some potential in that student, so what can we do to help build that student’s talent? My hope is that we’re able to find those students and give them opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise and then see where they go.”