Out in the Open

Students speak out about the potential pitfalls of gifted testing

While he was in school, Braxton Wignall showed signs of strong intelligence but also had strong behavioural challenges. When he was tested for being "gifted", he didn't make the cut. We hear from Braxton and students he works with today about the controversial practice of labelling students as 'gifted' and who defines what being exceptional looks like.

Students at Toronto's SEED alternative school say 'gifted' isn't the only exceptionality worth celebrating

Braxton Wignall was labelled as a behavioural student until he attended SEED alternative school. (Submitted by Braxton Wignall)

This story was originally published on June 13, 2019.

One of Braxton Wignall's earliest memories of school is writing a Halloween-inspired short story that almost got him suspended. 

"It was a very graphic story with blood, and killing, and knives, and murder," the Torontonian told Out in the Open.

Wignall, now 24, says his school's administration wanted him out, but his mom insisted they recognize his potential as a writer instead.

The incident was one of many where Wignall would be singled out as exceptional — albeit rarely in any of the ways parents hope for. 

By grade four, he was enrolled in an "intensive behavioural" program. 

When 'exceptional' exacerbates inequality

A 2018 study published in the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies suggests that black and brown students are more likely to end up in non-gifted special education programs.

According to a 2010 analysis of Toronto District School Board (TDSB) data, black kids accounted for 35.5 per cent of students identified as "behavioural," while making up just 14 per cent of the student body. 

It's a discrepancy that reverses itself when it comes to being labelled as gifted, where research shows that black students make up just three per cent of students identified as such.

Braxton Wignall's mother had to urge her son's school to allow Wignall to take gifted testing in grade three. (Submitted by Braxton Wignall)

Whereas many other Canadian school boards continue to handle gifted testing on a case-by-case basis, the TDSB now issues a standard gifted test to students in grade three. It's an across-the-board approach designed in part to correct for a process that once relied on potentially biased teachers to proactively identify students for testing. 

Wignall says he remembers his mom having to fight for him to be administered that same test back when he was in third grade.

He says he found the test relatively easy. His results, which he still has, bear that out. His overall score put him in the 81st percentile — considered "high average" by TDSB standards.

Brendan Browne, the executive superintendent overseeing special education at the TDSB, says that while a test result like Wignall's is an excellent score, indicating a "highly capable student," it is not the type of score that would classify a student as "exceptional".

Some educators continue to question the true value of testing for giftedness. In a November 2016 interview with CBC's The Current, Gordon Porter, the director of Inclusive Education Canada, said taking children out of regular classrooms weakens the core of public education.

"The whole kind of experience that children get in gifted programs needs to be brought to the regular class, and we should eliminate gifted classes and testing for gifted altogether," he argued.

'These labels... don't determine how smart you are'

Braxton Wignall’s scores in gifted testing put him in the 81st percentile. Most TDSB students admitted to gifted programming today are in the 98th percentile and above. (Submitted by Braxton Wignall)

For Wignall, not being admitted to gifted programming was a blow. But encouragement from his parents helped keep him moving forward — through about 12 different schools and years of routine trips to the office. 

"My mom's thing was, 'These labels… don't determine how smart you are or not,'" he said. "And I thank her for that." 

It wasn't until midway through high school that Wignall says he finally found an academic home at SEED, an alternative school in Toronto's east end. Years later, he still volunteers there, speaking with current students who share his concerns with a system that celebrates certain kinds of exceptionalism and doesn't always know how to navigate others. 

"When I came here, I went from failing to [getting] 90s," one current student explained. Her peers murmured behind her in agreement.

Braxton Wignall poses outside SEED Alternative Secondary School in Toronto's east end, where he transferred during high school. (CBC)

Students at SEED are encouraged to engage in self-directed learning — choosing their own course of study, within certain curricular parameters. 

"There were kids saying, 'I want to read this book,' 'I want to do no essays,' 'I want to do all oral essays,'" Wignall recalled of his first-ever English class at SEED. "I was like, 'Is this a joke?'"

Wignall and some current students at SEED say gifted testing designed to differentiate students based on ability can make those who don't emerge with exceptional scores feel fundamentally inferior. 

"I feel like the segregation of gifted kids… gives this odd idea in both sections' heads where it's like, 'I am better,' and 'I'm not as good as they are,'" said one student. 

"There are some kids who have such advanced cognitive abilities that we really do need to think about things differently for them," explained TDSB superintendent Brendan Browne. 

But Browne also says it's important to remember that "getting into a gifted program isn't a 'ticket' to anything," and giftedness may or may not influence lifetime achievement. 

However, for Wignall and other students at SEED, processes that label certain students as exceptional — and others as implicitly ordinary — still feel harmful. 

As one SEED student put it, "There's something exceptional and extraordinary about everybody in this system."

With files from CBC News. This story appears in the Out in the Open episode, "The Special Edition".


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