Challenging Excellence Gaps Through Personalized Learning: Meeting Needs, Assessing Growth

Pamela Clinken­beard, Pro­fes­sor of Edu­ca­tional Foun­da­tions, Uni­ver­sity of Wisconsin-​Whitewater
Ann Franke, WASCD Mem­ber Ser­vices Co-​chair and Direc­tor of Instruc­tion in the Verona Area School Dis­trict
Amy Miller, Advanced Learn­ers Coor­di­na­tor in the Ore­gon School District

We are all famil­iar with achieve­ment gaps. There is wide­spread agree­ment that the gap between the achieve­ment of advan­taged and less advan­taged stu­dents should be nar­rowed and that the goal should be to help all stu­dents reach pro­fi­ciency (at least). But what is an excel­lence gap? This is the dis­tance (even greater than the achieve­ment gap) between the pro­por­tions of lower and higher income stu­dents who are achiev­ing at advanced lev­els (above and beyond pro­fi­ciency). Plucker and his col­leagues (Plucker, Hard­esty, & Bur­roughs, 2013) found that low-​income and minor­ity stu­dents were much less likely to reach advanced lev­els of pro­fi­ciency on state or national assess­ments than were their White and more advan­taged peers. In Wis­con­sin, there are sub­stan­tial excel­lence gaps for Black, His­panic, and stu­dents eli­gi­ble for free/​reduced lunch. Wis­con­sin received a grade of “D” for inputs (state poli­cies that sup­port advanced achieve­ment and gifted edu­ca­tion) and “C+” for out­puts (achieve­ment scores and excel­lence gaps com­pared to other states) in a recent report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. (See also Plucker et al., 2015.)

Excellence Gaps and Gifted Education 

Stu­dents of color and low-​income stu­dents are often under­rep­re­sented in ser­vices and pro­gram­ming for advanced stu­dents, includ­ing gifted pro­grams. In Wis­con­sin, pro­gram­ming for all advanced stu­dents is incon­sis­tent at best, although man­dated by stan­dard t. Statute 121.02(1)(t) states “Each school board shall pro­vide access to an appro­pri­ate pro­gram for stu­dents iden­ti­fied as gifted and tal­ented.” Statute 118.35 and Rule 8.01(2)(t)2 describe the five areas of gift­ed­ness (gen­eral intel­lec­tual, spe­cific aca­d­e­mic, lead­er­ship, cre­ativ­ity, and visual/​performing arts) and the need to use mul­ti­ple mea­sures and culturally-​responsive prac­tices in iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and pro­gram­ming for gifted stu­dents. (See the DPI site for “gifted and talented pupils.”) Nation­ally, efforts to meet the needs of gifted and tal­ented stu­dents have been shift­ing from pull-​out or self-​contained “pro­grams” for iden­ti­fied stu­dents to broader attempts to iden­tify the needs of stu­dents and pro­vide for them in the reg­u­lar class­room when pos­si­ble. The empha­sis is on iden­ti­fy­ing needs (what does this stu­dent need in order to meet their poten­tial?) rather than iden­ti­fy­ing stu­dents (is this stu­dent gifted or not?). Dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of instruc­tion is an impor­tant com­po­nent of this effort, and gifted edu­ca­tion fits into the RtI frame­work. The Wis­con­sin RtI Cen­ter has devel­oped a research-supported database of “addi­tional chal­lenges,” prac­tices and mate­ri­als in math and lan­guage arts for advanced learn­ers . How­ever, even with com­pre­hen­sive pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment for instruc­tional staff, in-​class dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion can­not meet all the needs of all advanced students.

Some school dis­tricts are look­ing at “per­son­al­ized learn­ing” (PL) frame­works as a way to meet the needs of gifted/​talented/​advanced stu­dents, and to nur­ture and develop the gifts of all stu­dents. There are numer­ous mod­els and exam­ples of per­son­al­ized learn­ing approaches, but most include the goal of tai­lor­ing the edu­ca­tional envi­ron­ment to each student’s needs, skills, and inter­ests. (For a work­ing def­i­n­i­tion of per­son­al­ized learn­ing includ­ing four main com­po­nents, click here.) For those who have embraced PL, the emphases on indi­vid­u­al­ized pac­ing and con­tent, stu­dent col­lege and career goals, and learner moti­va­tion and engage­ment seem highly appro­pri­ate for meet­ing the needs of gifted stu­dents. But how does it work, and what does it look like? At the end of this arti­cle are the sto­ries of two dis­tricts: one has been meet­ing the needs of “advanced learn­ers” within per­son­al­ized learn­ing for sev­eral years, and one is just start­ing to explore the process of shift­ing from a more tra­di­tional GT pro­gram.

Assessment Issues 

There are unique issues in assess­ing learn­ing and growth for stu­dents who are already achiev­ing at high lev­els. In addi­tion to the excel­lence gap issue, there is the dif­fi­culty of demon­strat­ing stu­dent growth. Lack of demon­strated growth in high abil­ity stu­dents can be due to sev­eral fac­tors. One prob­lem area can be the assess­ments them­selves. If dis­tricts mon­i­tor progress and assess achieve­ment with instru­ments that have inad­e­quate “ceil­ing,” then growth will not show up for already-​high achiev­ers. (If you’re already scor­ing at the top of an assess­ment that was not chal­leng­ing for you, then there is nowhere to go to improve.) Another assessment-​related issue is “regres­sion toward the mean.” All assess­ment scores for an indi­vid­ual fluc­tu­ate, and a score that is high in the fall may (purely through sta­tis­ti­cal arti­fact) regress to a slightly lower score in the spring.

The sec­ond main rea­son for dif­fi­culty in demon­strat­ing growth is in the cur­ricu­lum itself. If stu­dents are not chal­lenged with appro­pri­ately dif­fi­cult mate­r­ial and tasks, they can­not grow. We prob­a­bly all agree that every stu­dent should demon­strate at least a year’s growth in a year of school­ing, but this often does not hap­pen with gifted stu­dents. This is a par­tic­u­lar trou­ble spot with stu­dents of color and those from poverty. They are likely to be over­looked when teach­ers are nom­i­nat­ing stu­dents for advanced oppor­tu­ni­ties, even in the many cases where they could suc­ceed with only a lit­tle assis­tance. Vygotsky’s “zone of prox­i­mal devel­op­ment” (ZPD) is rel­e­vant here: in order to be engaged and to grow, all stu­dents need to be work­ing at lev­els that they have not yet mas­tered, but that they are capa­ble of mas­ter­ing with some peer or adult scaf­fold­ing. Stu­dents who are never chal­lenged can become com­pla­cent and unmo­ti­vated, and are unlikely to learn to develop good work habits.

Using Personalized Learning to Meet Advanced Student Needs: District Stories

Two school dis­tricts’ sto­ries illus­trate some of the specifics of imple­ment­ing per­son­al­ized learn­ing and meet­ing the needs of advanced and gifted stu­dents within a PL frame­work. The Ore­gon School Dis­trict has been devel­op­ing the process for a few years now; the Verona Area School Dis­trict recently began incor­po­rat­ing plan­ning for gifted stu­dents in their PL process.

The Oregon School District Advanced Learning and Personalized Learning Journey
Amy Miller, Advanced Learners Coordinator

The Ore­gon School Dis­trict gifted and tal­ented pro­gram of sup­ports has been in place since 1990. In 2008, after a pro­gram eval­u­a­tion, we moved to a new pro­gram of sup­ports focused on rig­or­ous cur­ricu­lum (in many cases devel­oped for advanced learn­ers) and social and emo­tional learn­ing. In 2012, with full sup­port of our Board of Edu­ca­tion, we changed the title of staff and the sup­ports we offer to Advanced Learn­ing to reflect cur­rent best prac­tices in the field. Since 2008, we have mea­sured suc­cess for our learn­ers using growth mea­sures with our goal of a min­i­mum of a year’s growth for our learners.

After a series of “vision­ing into the future” papers writ­ten by our school board of edu­ca­tion, in the 2011-​12 school year, a per­son­al­ized learn­ing task force was con­vened as a best prac­tice to pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties to max­i­mize the poten­tial of all stu­dents based on their needs, abil­i­ties and pref­er­ences. The Per­son­al­ized Learn­ing ini­tia­tive has had pro­found effects on stu­dent learn­ing and teacher under­stand­ing of the new role of an edu­ca­tor in a per­son­al­ized learn­ing model. Today, iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of advanced learn­ing needs is ongo­ing with col­lab­o­ra­tion between admin­is­tra­tors, grade level teacher/​facilitators and Advanced Learn­ing staff with a focus on max­i­miz­ing growth. Per­son­al­iza­tion has also helped to iden­tify advanced learn­ing needs in our less advan­taged learn­ers or learn­ers with twice excep­tional needs that a one size fits all model would not have iden­ti­fied or been able to sup­port. As our per­son­al­iza­tion ini­tia­tive con­tin­ues to expand we see our learn­ers becom­ing empow­ered and dri­ving their own edu­ca­tion as teach­ers become col­lab­o­ra­tive facil­i­ta­tors of learning.

Next steps in the Ore­gon School Dis­trict are con­tin­u­ing our pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment series for staff dis­trict wide, at the build­ing level and in col­lab­o­ra­tive teams. We are also work­ing to develop for all cur­ric­u­lar areas a con­tin­uum of learn­ing skills/​standards which will sup­port all learn­ers (includ­ing our advanced learn­ers) to move at the depth and pace that max­i­mizes their learn­ing. Finally, our Per­son­al­ized Learn­ing task force (which includes, staff, par­ents and stu­dents) will con­tinue to meet to cel­e­brate suc­cesses, dis­cuss next steps and to eval­u­ate our long term strate­gic plan for full imple­men­ta­tion with a goal of max­i­miz­ing learn­ing and suc­cess of all students.

The Verona Area School District Personalized Learning Journey
Ann Franke, Director of Instruction 

The Verona Area School Dis­trict began the process of mov­ing to a per­son­al­ized learn­ing model in 2013 with the school board estab­lish­ing the goal of every stu­dent hav­ing a per­son­al­ized learn­ing plan by the begin­ning of the 201819 school year. Per­son­al­ized learn­ing is meant to be a vehi­cle to achieve the district’s ulti­mate mis­sion: Every Stu­dent Must be Suc­cess­ful! While the ideals of per­son­al­ized learn­ing have been widely embraced by the com­mu­nity, some par­ents and stu­dents have ques­tioned what the imple­men­ta­tion means for advanced learn­ers. Some of the ques­tions par­ents have posed include: Does per­son­al­ized learn­ing mean my child will have to “teach” him or her­self instead of receiv­ing direct instruc­tion? Will my child be expected to “teach” other chil­dren who are not able to grasp con­cepts as eas­ily? Will my child be held back in any way as the needs of other learn­ers are being met?

These ques­tions all point to the need for clearly defin­ing what per­son­al­ized learn­ing looks like in our dis­trict, a process we began over the last school year by devel­op­ing the Verona Area School Dis­trict Per­son­al­ized Learn­ing Plan which delin­eates the key ele­ments: The Pro­file (who the learner is); The Path (what the learner does); The Evi­dence (how the learner is pro­gress­ing); and The Reflec­tion (where the learner goes next). We also rec­og­nize the need for increased pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment for our staff so we have cre­ated two foun­da­tional courses: The Who, What, WOW, Where, and Why (5 W’s) of Per­son­al­ized Learn­ing, and Intro­duc­tion to the Verona Area School Dis­trict Per­son­al­ized Learn­ing Plan. In addi­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion to our fam­i­lies about the ben­e­fits of per­son­al­ized learn­ing for all stu­dents, includ­ing our advanced learn­ers, will be a high pri­or­ity over the upcom­ing school year. This will include a Fre­quently Asked Ques­tions doc­u­ment, infor­ma­tion on our web­site and newslet­ters, a VASD per­son­al­ized learn­ing video, and a “par­ent ver­sion” of the Intro­duc­tion to the VASD Per­son­al­ized Learn­ing Plan.


Per­son­al­ized Learn­ing holds promise for meet­ing the needs of all stu­dents, includ­ing those who need more chal­lenge than is typ­i­cal at grade level. Its empha­sis on treat­ing each stu­dent as a unique indi­vid­ual means that stu­dents who have both gifts and chal­lenges may find that, rather than being labeled only as a mem­ber of a par­tic­u­lar group that needs assis­tance, they also will have their tal­ents appre­ci­ated and nurtured.


Plucker, J., Gian­cola, J., Healey, G., Arndt, D., & Wang, C. (2015). Equal tal­ents, unequal oppor­tu­ni­ties: A report card on state sup­port for aca­d­e­m­i­cally tal­ented low-​income stu­dents. Lans­downe, VA: Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

Plucker, J. A., Hard­esty, J., & Bur­roughs, N. (2013). Tal­ent on the side­lines: Excel­lence gaps and America’s per­sis­tent tal­ent under­class. Storrs, CT: Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Pol­icy Analy­sis, Neag School of Edu­ca­tion, Uni­ver­sity of Connecticut.

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  • Guest (Chris Van Hoof)


    I really appre­ci­ated the spe­cific dis­trict exam­ples. They demon­strate that a clear plan for Per­son­al­ized Learn­ing, with board and admin­is­tra­tive sup­port, takes time, but with slow and steady progress, great things can hap­pen for ALL kids, includ­ing our most advanced learners.

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