Understanding the Strengthening Gifted and Talented Education Act – What School Principals and Supervisors Need to Know

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By Michael Kaelber, Esq., Coordinator of Continuing Legal Education and Research


In 2019, the New Jersey Legislature raised the bar when it comes to the legal obligation for school districts in the area of gifted education through the passage of the Strengthening Gifted and Talented Education Act (SGTEA), P.L. 2019, c. 338. In this article, we review key provisions of that law and related implementing regulations. As we highlight, the SGTEA includes new requirements related to transparency, student identification, equity, the consideration of key resources when developing G & T programs, and a formal appeals process for parents to challenge district decisions. 

Recent data from the New Jersey Department of Education revealed that 8.3% of New Jersey’s almost 1.4 million students have been identified by their school districts as being gifted and talented students. That’s over 108,000 students that are receiving specialized services to address their gifted needs. In order to best serve these students, who are present in every school district and every school building, it is important for principals, supervisors and, in fact, all educators to understand the legal requirements of gifted and talented education in New Jersey and what school districts are required to provide. 

The Law – There are two primary sources that address the legal requirements for gifted and talented education in New Jersey; the Strengthening Gifted and Talented Education Act (SGTEA), and the Gifted and Talented regulations found in the New Jersey Standards and Assessment Regulations, N.J.A.C. 6A:8-3.1 et. seq. These two sources establish the standards for New Jersey G&T programming. 

The Definition – New Jersey Statute and Code define what constitutes a gifted and talented student in New Jersey. A gifted and talented student means:

Students who possess or demonstrate high levels of ability, in one or more content areas, when compared with their chronological peers in the local school district and who require modifications of their educational program if they are to achieve in accordance with their capabilities.

The key phrase is “when compared with their chronological peers in the local school district.” It is a locally determined norm; not a state or federal norm. When individuals state that everyone in the school district is gifted or that there are no gifted students in the school district, both views are inconsistent with New Jersey law. It cannot be “all students” and it cannot be “none” of the students. How many? It depends on the school district. As a guidepost, we do know that statewide the number is 8.3% of the student population. How a school district determines which of its students are gifted varies from school district to school district. It must vary, because the comparison is to “chronological peers in the local school district” and every school district is different. 

The Identification Process – While the identification process varies from school district to school district and there is no state mandated way to identify gifted and talented students, there are certain parameters ser forth in the law by which every board of education must abide. They include ensuring:

  • An ongoing kindergarten through grade 12 identification process for gifted and talented students that includes multiple measures in order to identify student strengths in intellectual ability, creativity, or a specific academic area. 

The identification process is ongoing K-12. When a school district says it does not start gifted and talented education until third grade, as some do, it is not in compliance with the law. Identification does not stop at the end of the elementary school level or the middle school level; it continues all the way through 12th grade. A student could be identified as gifted in 12th grade while having never being identified before; ongoing K-12.

How a board of education handles the question of continuation of a student in the G&T program once admitted, varies from school district to school district. Some districts have an automatic review every year, some districts have a once you’re in, you’re in forever philosophy. Some address the issue by need, reevaluating students who are not doing well in the program to see if the student is benefiting from G&T services to see how the school district can better serve that student and match services with needs. There is no absolutely correct or incorrect method. School districts have the ability to do what is best for them. 

The identification process must include multiple measures; no single test score or recommendation is sufficient to be in compliance with the law. Boards of education use a variety of measures including certain test scores, parent recommendations, teacher recommendations, portfolio assessments and more. There is no one correct path other than to have more than one measurement. The State does not mandate a particular test or measure; school districts are free to choose what works best in their district to identify student. Keep in mind that the purpose of the process is to identify student strengths in intellectual ability, creativity, or a specific academic area. Each of these potential strengths can require a different measuring stick to identify effectively; hence the need for multiple measures. 

Keeping that in mind, the law provides some assistance to boards of education and school administrators as they work through the process. A school district must specifically

  • Take into consideration the Gifted Programming Standards, Position Statements, and White Papers of the National Association for Gifted Children in identifying and serving gifted and talented students

While the 2005 New Jersey Commission Gifted Students recommended that the State require that every school district adopt the PreK – Grade 12 NAGC Gifted Programming Standards, the administrative code and later the statute only require consideration by the school district. Nonetheless, the NAGC Standards, Position Statements and White Papers can be a very useful tool in G&T identification and programming and must be reviewed and considered by the appropriate school district personnel. 

Equity in identification is an important component as well, as the law requires that:

  • School districts shall ensure equal access to a continuum of gifted and talented education services. The identification process shall include consideration of all students, including those who are English language learners and those with Individualized Education Plans or 504 plans;

Programs and Services – Boards of education shall ensure that appropriate instructional adaptations and educational services are provided to gifted and talented students in kindergarten through grade 12 to enable them to participate in, benefit from, and demonstrate knowledge and application of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards at the instructional level of the student.

The law defines what is meant by an instructional adaptation. It means:

  • an adjustment or modification to instruction enabling a student who is gifted and talented to participate in, benefit from, and demonstrate knowledge and application of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards in one or more content areas at the instructional level of the student, not just the student’s grade level.

The law specifically requires that boards of education ensure that appropriate instructional adaptations are designed for students who are gifted and talented. Boards of education should

  • develop and document appropriate curricular and instructional modifications used for gifted and talented students indicating content, process, products, and learning environment, and including, but not limited to, additional education activities such as academic competitions, guest speakers, and lessons with a specialist.

As with other parts of the law, the State does not prescribe any specific content or curriculum standard; it is all a matter of locally developed school district policy and curriculum. Throughout Commissioner decisions regarding school district gifted and talented programing, there is a sentence that is repeated in almost every decision; “There is no New Jersey law or regulation which prescribes the substantive content of a G&T program.” Local control is alive and well. Each school district can develop the G&T program it believes is best for its students as long as it addresses the parameters in the law; K-12 identification and programming using multiple measures and instructional adaptations. 

The law requires that boards of education shall affirmatively assist staff in program development. Boards of education shall provide the time and resources to develop, review, and enhance instructional tools with modifications for helping gifted and talented students acquire and demonstrate mastery of the required knowledge and skills specified by the standards at the instructional level of the student. How that is done, where that is done and at what time that is done is locally determined through managerial prerogative where appropriate and through collective negotiations with the local union when necessary. 

Transparency of Process –   To increase transparency of the G&T process, a school district is required to make detailed information available on its website regarding the policies and procedures used to identify students as gifted and talented and the continuum of services offered to gifted and talented students. The information shall include the criteria used for consideration for eligibility for the gifted and talented services, including the multiple measures used in the identification process to match a student’s needs with services, and any applicable timelines in the identification process.

An individual who believes that a school district has not complied with the SGTEA provisions may file a complaint with the board of education. The right to file a complaint shall be set forth in the board’s policy on gifted and talented education. The policy shall be linked to the homepage of the board’s Internet website. When a complaint is filed, the board shall issue a decision, in writing, to affirm, reject, or modify the district’s action in the matter. A petition of appeal to the board of education decision may be filed with the Commissioner of Education within 90 days of the board’s final decision. 

Challenges to Board of Education Gifted Identification and Programming – When a board of education is challenged as to its decision regarding gifted and talented identification and programming, the board’s action is reviewed by the Commissioner under an arbitrary and capricious standard. Traditionally the board of education will prevail in litigation before the Commissioner, provided that its policies and procedures are clear and consistent with the DOE policy on identification, the selection process is clearly set forth, there is a rational basis for the process and it is correctly and consistently applied. 

Professional Development – The law requires that boards of education actively assist and support professional development for teachers, educational services staff, and school leaders in the area of gifted and talented instruction. 

FEA LEGAL ONE offers a four day, three hours per day, Gifted and Talented Institute that is a great professional development opportunity for staff who work with gifted and talented students and programs. Topics covered in the G&T Institute include, but are not limited to, an overview of the law of G&T, identification of students, working with parents, equity issues in gifted education, how to do an equity audit of your gifted program, a DOE gifted education update, examples of exemplary urban programming, twice exceptional students, social emotional needs of gifted students, using a multi-tiered system of supports in gifted education, gifted consortia in New Jersey and K-2 and high school identification and programming. It is a comprehensive overview designed for both the new and experienced principal or supervisor of gifted and talented programming and is a professional development opportunity that can be supported by your school district. 

Certification – There is no specific teaching endorsement required to teach Gifted and Talented education; any valid instructional certificate is sufficient. Rutgers and Montclair State Universities offer non-degree graduate gifted and talented certificate programs (9-12 credits) that provide instruction in the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully teach gifted and talented students. These include the social and emotional development of the gifted child, curriculum design and implementation, pedagogy, instructional strategies, and the development and administration of a gifted education program. A number of New Jersey school districts with successful gifted and talented programs have supported the attendance of their teachers in these certificate programs. 

For more information on training available through LEGAL ONE, visit the LEGAL ONE website at www.njpsa.org/legalonenj .