A Story of Extremes- the 5th and 95th Percentiles

By Tiffany Oft

As a gifted education specialist in Ohio, much of my career is dictated by the words “95th Percentile.” You see, in some states, a student can only be identified as gifted in academic subjects or cognitive abilities, and therefore receive services, if they score at or above the 95th percentile on a standardized, state approved test.

That is the official, fancy worded policy on gifted children in a lot of states. What it means in reality is that every child I teach in the gifted resource room at my school has scored higher than 95% of the people who took a specific test.

Typical situation

If we think of a typical, general education elementary school classroom of twenty-ish students, only one of them would likely be gifted according to this criteria. Something like this. (the one blue headed child in the class.)

Reality Check – The actual situation is significantly more complex than this oversimplified illustration. Students can be identified in seven different areas. Some students are twice exceptional- meaning they have a gifted identification and a diagnosis of disability. An yes, students who come from poverty or minority populations are grossly underrepresented in the identified gifted population.

However, there is an important lesson in the pared down version, so humor me.

Now that you have some sense of how common (or uncommon) children identified as gifted are in the classroom, let’s take a look at some of the things I hear on a pretty much weekly, if not daily, basis in response to the population I teach:

“But everybody is gifted.”

“He must have cheated on the test.”

“The test isn’t that hard.”

“They don’t act like a gifted kid.”

“It must be nice teaching gifted kids.”

“They will do just fine without the gifted program; it is a waste of money.”

“But they have a C in my class!”

All of these comments seek to downplay the gifted and talented label, either claiming the child isn’t actually gifted, that being gifted is a commonplace thing, or that the services for children identified as gifted are unnecessary.

Flip it around

As the title suggests, this is not only an article about the 95th percentile, but also about the mirror population, the 5th percentile. If we take the same situation and identify the students who score at or below the fifth percentile, we are again left with one out of twenty.

Let’s take another look at those statements about gifted students, and apply these same arguments to the student who scores the lowest of a class of twenty on a standardized, reliable assessment.

“But everybody is gifted.” “But everybody is special ed.”
“He must have cheated on the test.” “He must have failed on purpose.”
“The test isn’t that hard.” “The test is too hard.”
“They don’t act like a gifted kid.” “They don’t act like a child with disabilities or learning struggles.”
“It must be nice teaching gifted kids.” “It must be nice teaching students who struggle.”
“They will do just fine without the gifted program; it is a waste of money.” “They will do just fine without special education services; they are a waste of money.”
“But they have a C in my class!” “But they have a C in my class!”

These statements about the lowest scoring five percent of the population, those that are most likely to receive special education services, do not make much sense either. Of course a child who scores lower than any other student in their class is going to need some additional supports to reach their potential and grow. At the same time; of course a child who scores higher than any other student in the class is going to need some additional support to reach their potential and grow.

Forget the labels

Even if you disagree with the gifted label. Even if you dislike the way your state measures, identifies, or serves children that have the gifted label. And even if, for some reason, you have a deep seated hatred of gifted programs. Can we put aside our emotional reactions to the labels “gifted” and “disabled” and come to the agreement that the students who fall at or above the 95th percentile on reliable, standardized tests would benefit from some additional support when compared to the general population?

Mathematically, students at or above the 95th percentile are as different from the average student as students at or below the 5th percentile are. When it comes down to it, students that demonstrate a high level of achievement, or a low level of achievement, both need some extra help. Some acceleration or some additional time. Some extension work or some more one-on-one time. Some opportunity to extend their thinking or an extension to the time the have to think and learn.

In a perfect world…

Of course, in a perfect world, we would be able to create classrooms and learning opportunities that allow these opportunities for ALL learners. One that is not restrictive or targeted to specific portions of the population. A classroom that reaches ALL learners where they are, when they get there. Sadly, for many learning environments, this is simply not the reality.

So, until the day this kind of amazing classroom is universal, these programs, both gifted education and special education, will be the lifeline for students, and the help that students at both extremes need in order to thrive.

So focus on their needs, give them what they need now, and work to make it better for all your students.


Tiffany Ott is a gifted intervention specialist in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district. As an eight year veteran classroom teacher, she discovered a passion for meaningful technology integration in classrooms and began her master’s degree in instructional technology through Kent State. Now, she is combining her love of great ed tech with a mastery learning approach to teaching and learning that is transforming her class, her teaching, and her students’ learning, and she is eager to share her strategies with educators around Ohio.
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