This information was produced by the staff of the Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development (B-BC) at the University of Iowa ( The resources and information listed here are for informational purposes; there is no direct or implied endorsement by the B-BC. Services provided by the B-BC include programs for academically talented K-12 and college students, professional development for teachers, the Assessment and Counseling Clinic, the Acceleration Institute (, and graduate programs and research in gifted education.

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Subject Acceleration: Who, What, How?

Who has mastered the classroom curriculum and needs an intervention that provides more advanced work in a specific subject? What needs to be considered when making this educational decision? Finally, how can the decision be made objectively?

Who: Students scoring at the 95th percentile or above on at least one of the main subject areas on a grade-level, standardized achievement test should be considered for additional challenge. This information reveals what a student has mastered at grade-level, but doesn’t inform regarding the need for additional challenge.

Only the specific content area needs to be at the 95th percentile; the student’s Composite Score for the grade-level achievement test does not need to be at the 95th percentile. For example, if focusing on high-achieving math students, look at students’ scores on the math subtests.

What needs to be considered? When considering academic acceleration, the goal is to make sure that the student is already performing excellently at grade-level and will continue to perform excellently when accelerated.

Even with excellent grade-level performance, there is sometimes a concern that the students will have some gaps in background knowledge or that students might miss critical information by skipping over some content. This is why achievement testing is helpful. If a student is being considered for skipping 5th grade math, it’s useful to give that student an end-of-5th-grade exam or an achievement test that measures what is typically taught during that year. The student will likely get a very high score on that test, but the testing may point out specific areas the student has not yet mastered. A mentor or teacher can then work with the student on the concepts he or she missed in order to get the student up to speed before moving into the next course.

How should the decision be made? There are several assessments, easily obtained by educators, which provide information to make decisions about subject acceleration. These assessments include grade-level standardized achievement tests and above-level standardized, tests.

Achievement testing includes standardized, grade-level tests such as the Iowa Assessments, TerraNova Test, and Stanford Achievement Test. These tests help educators compare students to other students their own age or grade. Many schools use eITP, which provides a great tool that easily allows educators to find the students earning grade-level scores at the 95th percentile or higher.

Once the high-achieving students are identified, the next step is above-level testing.

An above-level test measures a high-achieving student’s aptitude. The Belin-Blank Center (and many academic talent searches around the country) use a test that was developed for older students, which is administered to younger students. Some of the young students who take the above-level test will earn high scores, some will earn low scores, and some earn average scores on the above-level test. How the student scores on the above-level test helps educators know who is ready for more advanced content.

After above-level testing, what is the next step?

One rule of thumb for making decisions based upon the above-level testing results is the 50th percentile rule: Students earning scores at the 50th percentile or higher on an above-level test (when compared to the older group of students) are likely candidates for subject acceleration.

Why the 50th percentile on the above-level test? When a younger student (who has not been exposed to the curriculum) earns a score that is at, or above the 50th percentile (compared to older students), that score is a good indicator that the younger student’s performance is comparable to average students at the higher grade-level. Therefore, the student is ready for more challenge.

How can educators use this information?

If a group of high-achieving students takes an above-level test, educators can examine the scores of the students and group them for instruction based on their test scores. For example, if 5 students scored at the 50th percentile, or above, when compared to the older students on whom the test was normed, those 5 students could be moved up a grade in that subject or grouped in an accelerated class in that subject area. Students earning lower scores would benefit from a more enrichment-oriented approach and can be grouped accordingly.

Summary of the steps

  • Step 1: Administer the grade-level standardized achievement test. Students earning scores at the 95th percentile in the relevant subject area are considered high-achieving and are recommended to move on to Step 2, above-level testing to determine their aptitude or readiness for advanced content.
  • Step 2: Administer an aptitude test (a test that was developed for older students) to the high-achievers identified in Step 1. The Belin-Blank Center provides above-level testing using I-Excel for bright 4th-6th graders or the ACT for bright 7th-9th graders. Various talent searches around the country use different above-level tests.
  • Step 3: If there are concerns about gaps in the background knowledge, the students who took that above-level test can take an additional test in that content area. Because the additional test is at the higher grade-level, educators can determine if there are any gaps in the students’ background knowledge.
  • Step 4: Place the student(s) in an advanced class (a class with older students or a homogeneously grouped fast-paced class providing advanced content).

What is the goal of these four steps? Students and parents are better informed about students’ academic strengths and educators can confidently provide curriculum tailored to those strengths. Making data-based, objective decisions results in students who are consistently challenged in school.

For more information, see:

The book, Developing Math Talent, by Susan Assouline & Ann Lupkowski-Shoplik. See especially the chapter on the Diagnostic Testing->Prescriptive Instruction Model for detailed information about using tests to help inform decisions.

The Best-Kept Secret in Gifted Education: Above-Level Testing — This post offers an overview of the theory and research behind above-level testing.

I’m Ready to Set Up I-Excel Testing for This Year: Where Do I Start?— Specific steps for setting up I-Excel are included in this post.

Have Your 7th-9th Graders Registered to Take the ACT? — This post includes useful information about using the ACT as an above-level test for 7th through 9th grade students. Current information about fees, test session dates, and registration deadlines can be found at

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