Identifying high-ability

This page guides the identification of high-ability students.

The importance of identifying high-ability students

Identifying high-ability students helps teachers and schools to meet their learning needs. When students are not identified, they may find school unchallenging. This could lead to them becoming bored and/or disengaged. Identifying high-ability students is particularly tricky when their abilities might be hidden. For example:

  • twice-exceptional students where a learning difficulty hides the student's true ability
  • students from cultural backgrounds where high ability may look different
  • students who have already disengaged from school because of unchallenging learning experiences
  • students who might be hiding their abilities to 'fit in' with their peers.

What we know

Five key principles should be remembered when identifying high-ability students (Richert, 1991). Identification should:

  • begin as early as possible
  • be flexible and continuous
  • utilise many measures
  • highlight indicators of underachievement
  • be appropriate to age and stage of schooling.

Slater (2018) has compiled a list of measures that are used in Australian schools to identify high-ability students. These include:

  • response to classroom activities
  • self-nomination
  • peer-nomination
  • teacher nomination
  • parent nomination
  • competition results
  • above-level tests
  • standardised tests of creative ability
  • standardised cognitive assessments (IQ tests)
  • observations and anecdotes
  • checklists of traits
  • interviews (child or parent)
  • academic grades.

From theory to practice



  • work by combining the different characteristics of high-ability into a list
  • are used by teachers to 'check off' the traits of students to identify high-ability
  • usually, focus on the traits from the intellectual high-ability domain.

Two popular checklists used in Australian schools are:

  • Silverman (1993): although old, this checklist has been supported by recent research (Schmitt et al., 2019)
  • Merrick (2004, as cited in Merrick & Tagget, 2004): This checklist looks at both positive and negative traits and behaviours that can arise for high-ability students.

Whilst research supports the use of checklists to identify high-ability students (Slater, 2018), they do need to be used carefully. Thraves (2021) points out that checklists currently in use are often culturally biased. This is because they are usually developed around a sample that is culturally and socio-economically homogenous (Borland, 2003). 

Some checklists have been produced that claim to counter this issue. Frasier et al.'s (1995) list of Traits, Attributes and Behaviours (TABs) is promoted as being universal. The authors claim it can be used to identify high-ability across all cultural groups. The TABs have been used in Australian research with Aboriginal participants (Gibson, 1997). Yet its universality has been challenged by other studies (Thraves, 2021). 

While the TABs can be a useful place to start, Thraves (2021) recommends that local community members are consulted when applying the TABs. This will ensure that any culturally specific expression of the TABs is addressed.

Assessment data is another useful way of identifying high-ability. It is best practice to use a variety of assessments to identify high-ability students. Assessment of students should be ongoing. It may include a variety of formative and summative items, for example:

  • classroom-based assessment samples (e.g., tests, assignments)
  • standardised achievement assessments (e.g., NAPLAN or the Progressive Achievement Tests – Reading/Mathematics)
  • teacher observations and/or other qualitative information
  • projects or portfolios
  • past assessment results (e.g., curriculum levels from the previous year)
  • above-level tests.

An assessment template can help teachers compile and analyse these various assessments. It is worth considering the following points when using assessment data:

If a student has become bored or disengaged with the content, they may not perform during an assessment. The student's results may not show what they are capable of. This could lead to an understanding that the student does not have a high ability. This is where above-level testing can sometimes help (assess students using tests for older students).

Students who have high ability in one area may not show the same ability in another area. For example, a student may achieve high grades in algebra but struggle with creative writing.

Research shows that parents can help identify high ability in their children. Parents have a wealth of information about their children that may not be as observable at school. Parents also witness their child's early years. This means they will be aware of any early milestones in their child's development. Including parental checklists in an identification protocol can provide valuable information for teachers and schools.

Strategies and tools

Strategies that can help teachers to identify high-ability students include:

  • ensure parents and carers are involved in the identification process
  • use assessment tools that are culturally fair (e.g., culturally specific checklists)
  • work with other teachers who know the student
  • look for factors that may mask high-ability
  • observe students in a variety of classroom situations.

Tools that can help teachers identify high-ability students include:

Focus questions for professional learning

  • What tools do you currently use to identify high-ability?
  • Are these tools reflective of a multiple measures approach?
  • Are these tools helpful in identifying underachievement in high-ability students?


Borland, J. (2003). Rethinking gifted education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Frasier, M., Hunsaker, S. L., Lee, J., Mitchell, S., Cramond, B., Krisel, S., … Finley, V.S. (1995). Core attributes of giftedness: A foundation for recognizing the gifted potential of minority and economically disadvantaged students.

Merrick & Tagget (2004). Gifted and talented education: professional development package for teachers, Module 2. GERRIC, University of New South Wales.

Richert, E. S. (1991). Rampant problems and promising practices in identification. Handbook of Gifted Education, 81–96.

Schmitt, A. J., Piselli, K., Hoffman, R. L., & Schreiber, J. B. (2019). Factor Analysis of a Modified Characteristic of Giftedness Scale. Contemporary School Psychology, 1–6.

Silverman, L. K. (1993). Counselling the Gifted and Talented. Love Publishing Co.

Slater, E. (2018). The identification of gifted children in Australia: The importance of policy. TalentEd, 30(2018), 1–16.

Thraves (2021). Yolngu way: An Aboriginal approach to talent development. [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. The University of New England.