Differentiating Within A Gifted Classroom


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Nothing stirs up behavior problems like trying to teach a gifted student something they already know.

In fact, the California GATE standards state:

The core curriculum is compacted for gifted students so that learning experiences are developmentally appropriate (not redundant) to their needs, interests, and abilities.

After watching my entire class of 6th grade GATE students average over 90% month after month on their Houghton Mifflin theme skill tests, I began to get a sneaky suspicion that some of them already knew the material prior to my instruction.

This realization led to my use of the HM Theme Skills tests as a pre-assessment.


  1. Day one: Before any instruction, all students take reading comprehension skill tests, marking answers on a simple sheet I printed out.
  2. Day two: Students take any remaining sections that I deem appropriate for a pre-assessment. This can include structural analysis, word parts, and grammar.
  3. I correct these tests. Students never see their score (many will be taking this same test as a post-assessment in about a month). Students only know if they got 100% or less than 100% [edit: I use 100% in this case because the skill tests are only five multiple choice questions.  Four out of five on a multiple choice is too easy, in my opinion]. In any section where a student got a perfect scored, they are “compacted” out of that lesson.
  4. When we get to that lesson, students who have received 100% get an up-leveled assignment while the rest of the class receives direct instruction.
  5. During the post-assessment, any student who compacted out of a section does not have to retest that section, they keep their 100%.


  • You will avoid teaching students material they already know.
  • Students who have not mastered the material will receive instruction in a smaller group.
  • Students who have demonstrated mastery get an up-leveled, differentiated assignment and the chance to work on their own.
  • Groups are flexible, so students are constantly changing groups based on need.
  • You have evidence from district tests to show that students demonstrated mastery (≥90%).

The Grim Details

The most difficult part of this system was the administrative details of tracking each student’s level at each skill and communicating these levels to students. In order for this system to work, students need to quickly check if they are in a “compact group” or an “on-level group” for any particular skill. Here is a common scenario:

Me: “Today we are going to be learning about punctuating quotations. If you are in the compact group for this skill, come up and I will give you your assignment. Everyone else, come up to the front with your language arts notebook.”
Student 1: “Am I in the compact group?”
Me: “Let me read off the people who are in the compact group:” (names are re-read)
Student 2: “Wait, am I in the compact group?”
Me: “Rggh.”

This solution was impractical. My next step was to add a list on the language arts board, but this led to a stampede every time I started a lesson.

Post-Its To The Rescue

A sample student's post-it

A sample student's post-it

In the end, each student maintained a post-it on their desk keeping track of their own level for each skill. You should, of course, maintain your own spreadsheet since certain students will lose their post-its occasionally. Also, to maintain privacy, students choose to have their post-it face-up or face-down on their desk.

Adding Some Drama

To keep things interesting, we held a “results show” the day after the pre-tests to announce who had compacted out. It was during this time that students completed their post-its.  I created a tally sheet to show which skills were heavily compacted and which were a challenge for the class. We kept this tally up throughout the theme.

Up-Leveled Assignments?

To create a learning goal for the compact group, add an extra layer of depth or complexity to the original objective. Here’s an example:

On-Level Group Student Objective

“I will prove the generalization ’causes lead to unexpected effects’ using the selection ‘The Great Wall.’ I will create a multi-flow map with at least three causes and three effects.”

Compact Group Student Objective

“I will prove the generalization ’causes lead to unexpected effects’ across the disciplines of science, social studies, langauge arts, and my own life. I will create a big idea organizer with at least two examples for each discipline.”

The challenge is to keep the assignment interesting but also familiar enough so that the compact group can work without needing your assistance (since you are teaching the on-level group). In this example, my students were already familiar with generalizations and big idea organizers (a Sandra Kaplan graphic organizer).


This may seem like running a three-ring circus, but by the end of the year my students were quite efficient at moving to their necessary groups. I loved it because it conquered the problem of providing flexible language arts groups for my students. It was also quite efficient since I used publisher-provided, multiple-choice tests. Finally, it helped me target my instruction towards specific students and specific skills.

Questions? Improvements? Join the conversation in the comments!