Analysis: Nonverbal Tests for AIM Identification of Minority and Disadvantaged Students


On Thursday night, the school district heard a critique of its use of TONI (Test of Nonverbal Intelligence) by Professor Tobin White. His research finds that the students administered the TONI were “six times more likely to qualify than those taking only the OLSAT.” They were also nine times more likely, according to Professor White, to score in the 99th percentile.

He writes, “These are radically different measures, yet they are being treated as equivalent in program placement decisions.”

He adds, citing research, “The TONI was not designed to replace broad-based intelligence tests but rather to provide an alternative method of assessment when a subject’s cognitive, language, or motor impairments rendered traditional tests of intelligence inappropriate and ineffectual.”

However, at the same time what becomes clear is that a traditional test like OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School Ability Test) would generate a GATE program that is 48% White and 44% Asian, versus our current practice that has the program 60% White and 16% Asian.

My inquiry into the effectiveness of TONI has been mixed, but what is clear is that OLSAT is a highly verbal test and therefore disadvantages not only those with cognitive, language, or motor impairments but also disadvantaged students who themselves may end up lacking the language skills of their peers.

This is explained succinctly in a Duke University article about “Minority Children in Gifted Education,” written by Jack A. Naglieri, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive Development at George Mason University.

They write, “Most parents know that school administrators use intelligence tests to identify gifted children. What most parents do not know is that the content of these tests can have a powerful influence on who is identified as gifted and who is not. The tests can block minority children, especially those with limited English-language skills or limited preschool experience, from admission to special programs, or they can be the keys that let these children in. It all depends on which tests are used.”

It is important to differentiate between “a test of achievement and a test of ability.” In other words, students can be smart, but not know much. Therefore, “Nonverbal tests offer a different way to identify children with high potential.”

“The verbal and quantitative parts are difficult for children who have limited English-language skills and have had few chances to develop literacy skills,” they write. “Nonverbal tests of general ability are designed specifically to measure intelligence independently of language and math skills.”

When Boardmember Tom Adams was running for the school board, the Vanguard asked each candidate a series of questions, including one on GATE.

Mr. Adams at that time responded, “The needs of GATE/AIM-identified students can be balanced with the needs of the majority of students by improving program design and through the better use of existing resources.

“The Davis program should be evaluated for whether it is using current best practices, and the California Association for the Gifted would be the first place to seek information about best practices,” he stated.

He would conclude, “More importantly, the AIM program should be an innovative program that is an exemplar. As I stated in the Vanguard’s Forum, my educational philosophy is summed up in the idea of universal design for learning. The district needs to shape its programs to meeting the needs of all students, including GATE/AIM-identified student.”

The California Association for the Gifted, or CAG, has published some position papers. One of those was “Identification of Gifted and Talented Learners.”

I think a critical point that was missing in the discussion on Thursday was this one: “Identification and placement must be based on student need, rather than on the number of students who can be accommodated by a program or a pre-specified percentage of students.”

The question, as we noted, turned on the issue of over-identification. As Boardmember Susan Lovenburg put it, “I do have some significant concerns that we’re over-identifying students into the program… We need to address that as a district.”

At the same time, she noted, “Ultimately the question that is being asked is are we appropriately identifying the students that need these special services.” She said, “I’m not in favor of dismantling the self-contained GATE program. I don’t speak for any of my colleagues, they can speak for themselves. But I do see that value in the program for students who truly need the services.”

CAG argues for the need for multiple criteria that “include standardized and non-standardized instruments, process and performance indicators, and multiple sources of data must be used in the identification of gifted learners.” Indeed, they argue, “A single criterion is not adequate and does not meet the requirements of the law.”

They add, “Appropriate instruments and non-traditional methods of identification should be considered to identify underserved populations.” Here they argue, “These instruments must take into account the different aspects of giftedness exhibited in different cultures (e.g., rapid acquisition of the English Language in comparison to their peers, leadership, problem solving abilities, assuming family responsibilities at an early age).”

They conclude, “The California Association for the Gifted believes that gifted programs should continue to search out the extraordinarily talented in all social and cultural groups by using the available techniques that are most sound …. CAG believes that all children are eligible for the nomination process regardless of their socioeconomic, linguistic, or cultural background and /or exceptionalities. It is CAG’s position that by following the steps in the identification process outlined above, all children will be well served and the identification of gifted children best implemented. Identification, when appropriately done, is the key to educational placement that leads to the realization of gifted potential.”

One point that has been made to me is that TONI may or may not be the non-verbal test that we should use. A number of districts use NNAT.

Professor Naglieri writes that NNAT (Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test) “is given with a minimum of verbal instructions.” He argues, “Since one’s knowledge of words and mathematics is much less important on nonverbal tests of general ability than one’s ability to determine the relationships among shapes in a design, children who do not come from enriched backgrounds are not at a disadvantage when they take these tests.”

He continues, “Studies that my colleagues and I have done show that the NNAT’s approach to measuring intelligence is more fair to a wide variety of children: groups of black, white, and Hispanic children earned similar scores; similar percentages of black, white, and Hispanic children earned scores that qualified them for gifted programs; Hispanic children with limited English-language skills and Hispanic children who only spoke English earned similar scores; and, finally, Native American children and non–Native American children earned similar scores. These studies support the view that a nonverbal test can help identify gifted minority children.”

They tested these tests through a project with George Mason University’s Center for Cognitive Development in Fairfax, Virginia. He writes, “The NNAT helped find more gifted minority children who are bilingual—children who would not have been considered for a gifted program if their verbal and quantitative scores had been used.”

Again he concludes, “Not that verbal and quantitative tests should not be used. But a nonverbal test can supplement them, because it increases the percentages of gifted minority children who are identified as such.”

Finally, as noted on Saturday, we focused a lot of time on identification of AIM students and no time on the question of how they perform while in the program and the overall strengths and weaknesses of AIM.

This discussion has intentionally bracketed the question of whether we should have a self-contained AIM program.

That question is wrapped in another and I think more important question. The question I think we should be asking is whether the program is serving their individual needs and, by extension, whether our traditional programs are best serving the needs of the large majority of non-AIM identified students.

Nevertheless, the research seems pretty clear in the need for nonverbal tests for minority and disadvantaged students. And if that is not the TONI, it seems there are some other options.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Davis Progressive

    this research backs the comments of madavi from last week. the need for nonverbal test identifiers is clear to produce diverse student populations in the AIM program.  any effort to limit nonverbal will produce a heavily skewed student population.

  2. Scheney

    My son entered kindergarten with reading and math skills well beyond his grade level.  After being skipped to 2nd grade for a year, he entered 3rd grade GATE  after scoring in the 99th percentile on the OLSAT – apparently extremely rare from the information that has been provided.  I think he was a true candidate for a GATE program – underachieving and struggling to manage a regular classroom setting, yet highly intelligent – but not the GATE program that Davis provides.  It seemed to serve mainly high achieving students that would have succeeded in any educational situation.  The competitive environment was overwhelming.  My son left GATE before 6th grade after a year of exclusion and abuse that the school administration did little to protect him from.  I cannot help but feel that DJUSD wasted this student, because he did not fit in with this high-achieving, accelerated model.  I wish that more attention would be put on the program to see if it was really serving the students it is supposed to serve, rather than the focus on admission and maintaining diversity.  A GATE program is not supposed to be an AP Elementary school program, regardless of that being how it is viewed in Davis, and is failing the students who need special education services.   It also shouldn’t be serving a third of our students.  Every time I hear about the efforts to “produce diverse student populations” I feel that our representatives have clearly lost their way and are just desperate to identify enough under-represented students to achieve that diversity so that the program is not scaled back and threaten their own child’s place in the program.   Students should not have to compete to get into a GATE program or any other special education program, if that program would best meet their needs.  I agree that way too many students are winning seats in the GATE program that really don’t need the program, because it has become something else than it was supposed to be – the smart kids program vs the “regular” program.   DSIS is where my son ended up and I will be forever grateful for the one teacher who ferried him through all of his High School curriculum, under my supervision at home.   Without DSIS, DJUSD would have completely failed my student.   He is now an accomplished musician and music instructor and still the sensitive, highly intelligent person that he has always been.

    1. Don Shor

      As you know, my son tracked exactly parallel to yours, with rather different outcomes. GATE, together with Special Ed, was what worked and got him on track. And then he ended up in DSIS as well, which proved to be the perfect placement. I absolutely share your gratitude to DSIS.

    2. Frankly

      It is simple, if the school system has the templated services that your child can fit into, it generally does a good job with engagement and instruction.  However, there are many gifted kids that don’t fit well into any of the small inventory of templates… an inventory that has been declining and contracting for the last 40+ years.

      Those that speak highly of Davis schools just got lucky in that their kid or kids could be made to fit into a template.

      Those that question the story of great Davis schools likely had kids that were outside looking in at something they did not feel they belonged to.  Many of them graduated with a dislike for education because of that experience.

      I think there is a very sizable and growing number of the latter.

      1. wdf1

        Frankly:  …an inventory that has been declining and contracting for the last 40+ years.

        …helped by the emphasis on standardized testing throughout that time.

  3. sisterhood

    “Students should not have to compete to get into a GATE program or any other special education program, if that program would best meet their needs.”

    Competition is stressed at Davis High. Cooperation is taught and valued at DaVinci, imho. Raised a daughter and a son, one at each school.

  4. MrsW

    “…the purpose of the TONI is to identify students where language is an issue and where a verbal test might not be the best measure.” (from previous post)

    “…as noted on Saturday, we focused a lot of time on identification of AIM students and no time on the question of how they perform while in the program and the overall strengths and weaknesses of AIM.”

    Our white child “for whom language is an issue” qualified for GATE via retesting using TONI.  It allowed our child to follow in an older sibling’s footsteps and go to the same school.  Huge mistake.  The curriculum is VERBAL–even the mathematics curriculum, which should have been his strength in elementary school, followed by College Preparatory Mathematics (CPM)   Once in the program, our child’s experience was very much like Scheney describes.  DSIS educators are the only ones I’ve met who “got” him and are the only ones who could steer him towards a high school diploma.  Bless you, DSIS.

    After years of being an interested-party to the GATE/AIM discussion, I feel like I’ve been watching a number of movies that end at the wedding.  Let’s talk about the marriage some day!  The program has been around for 25 years.  Where are the data about the actual program outcomes?

    Based on our experience, if your child isn’t highly VERBAL and your child is either unwilling to be tutored or you do not have the funds to compensate, don’t walk, run away from AIM/GATE as fast as you can.  If you do not believe in following anecdotal based information, insist that the DJUSD start collecting the data, so you can make a real decision.  DJUSD has been running this program for 25 years or so, but they don’t monitor the actual achievement of the students they process through the program.  To start, the data I recommend you ask for–how many AIM students are taking 4 years of high school mathematics?  What number of TONI identified AIM students are on a high achieving track in 11th grade? (11th grade is when the boost provided by the program should be apparent.)


    1. wdf1

      MrsW:  The program has been around for 25 years. 

      Maybe in its current format.  There was a “mentally gifted minors” program that was probably a precursor to GATE/AIM in existence at DJUSD at least 40 years ago.

  5. gmanos

    Our school district has used the NNAT and NNAT-2 for 9 years in an effort to diversify our Gifted Program.  For each year, with the exception of the 2007-08, there were significant differences in mean IQ between black and white students and between students receiving a free or reduced lunch and those who did not.  White students had significantly higher IQ’s than black students, and students not on free or reduced lunch had significantly higher IQ’s than students receiving a free or reduced lunch.  For the 2007-08 school year, there was no significant difference between black students on free or reduced lunch and white students on free or reduced lunch.  The black/white IQ difference is smaller at low income levels, with the difference increasing as socioeconomic status increases (Gottfredson, 2005; Jensen, 1980; Herrnstein & Murray, 1994; McGurk, 1953).  Data were combined for all nine years to obtain more definitive results.  There were significant differences among groups, with the black sample scoring significantly lower than the white sample and the low income sample scoring significantly lower than the sample that was not low income.  Differences were significant at p < .0001.  Other researchers (Lohman, 2005) have questioned the representativeness of Naglieri’s samples for the various groups.  Also, Naglieri matches samples on socioeconomic status (SES).  Such a practice reduces, but does not eliminate group differences.  For example, matching blacks and whites on SES reduces differences by about one-third.  Since IQ has a strong genetic component and is correlated with income, occupational level, and educational level (all components of SES), some portion of the variance in SES is also due to genetics.  Therefore, Naglieri eliminates some genetic variance when matching for SES.  The age level of our sample is second grade.  The test stimuli for the NNAT uses colors and shapes.  All students, regardless of SES, are familiar with colors and shapes by second grade.  I therefore do not see the rationale for matching students according to SES.

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