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NCTM Task Force on Promising Students

Task Force Members

Jennie Bennett, Manuel Berriozábal, Margaret DeArmond, Linda Sheffield (Chair), Richard Wertheimer

The NCTM Task Force on Promising Students consists of five educators who represent a number of different constituencies including public schools, programs for promising students, parents, universities, and researchers. The task force had an initial meeting at the NCTM Annual Meeting in Boston, read relevant literature, including the NCTM publication, Providing Opportunities for the Mathematically Gifted, disseminated a survey on the internet to relevant news groups and mailing lists, and met for three days to craft this report that includes issues, recommendations, and a draft of a policy statement. After the initial report was written, it was posted on the internet for comments, and revised. A copy of the initial survey is appended to this report, and the internet responses are available upon request from the committee chair or on-line through electronic mail.


In 1980, it was stated in An Agenda for Action, "the student most neglected, in terms of realizing full potential, is the gifted student of mathematics. Outstanding mathematical ability is a precious societal resource, sorely needed to maintain leadership in a technological world. (NCTM, 1980, An Agenda for Action: Recommendations for School Mathematics of the 1980s, p. 18). In the 15 years since this report, not much has changed other than an even more urgent need for technological leadership. Therefore, it is imperative that NCTM act quickly to conserve and enhance this precious resource.

Definition of Promising Students

In 1972, Public Law 91-230, Section 806, was passed by the Federal Government stating:
"Gifted and talented children are those identified by professionally qualified persons, who by virtue of outstanding abilities are capable of high performance. These are children who require differentiated educational programs and/or services beyond those normally provided by the regular school program in order to realize their contribution to self and society. Children capable of high performance include those with demonstrated achievement and/or potential ability in any of the following areas, singly or in combination:

  1. general intellectual ability
  2. specific academic aptitude
  3. creative or productive thinking
  4. leadership ability
  5. visual and performing arts
  6. psychomotor ability

It can be assumed that utilization of these criteria for identification of the gifted and talented will encompass a minimum of 3 to 5 percent of the school population." (The sixth area of psychomotor ability was later dropped from the federal definition.)

Although educators have attempted to expand the definition of giftedness to become more inclusive, the 1972 definition prevailed for over two decades. Today, many states continue to use some variation of this definition to define gifted and talented students in order to provide special programs. Research by Howard Gardner and others during the 1980s led to an expanded definition by the federal government. In the 1990s, with the passage of the federal Javits Gifted and Talented Education Act, the definition was broadened to the following:
"Children and youth with outstanding talent perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age , experience, or environment. 
These children and youth exhibit high performance capability in intellectual, creative, and/or artistic areas, possess an unusual leadership capacity, or excel in specific academic fields. They require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the schools.
Outstanding talents are present in children and youth from all cultural groups, across all economic strata, and in all areas of human endeavor."

The Task Force on Promising Students believes that the definition of students with mathematical promise should build upon this latter, broader definition. Students with mathematical promise are those who have the potential to become the leaders and problem solvers of the future. We see mathematical promise as a function of 
  • ability, 
  • motivation, 
  • belief, and 
  • experience/opportunity. 
These variables are not fixed and need to be developed so that success for these promising students can be maximized. This definition includes the students who have been traditionally identified as gifted, talented, genius, prodigy, precocious, etc., and broadens it to include students who have been traditionally excluded from previous definitions of gifted and talented, and therefore excluded from rich mathematical opportunities. This definition acknowledges that students who are mathematically promising have a large range of abilities and a continuum of needs that should be met.


Traditional methods of identifying gifted and talented mathematics students such as standardized test scores are designed to limit the pool of students identified as mathematically promising. Although these measures are commonly used to identify gifted and talented students, it is clear that many students are overlooked and that additional means of identification must be used. 
Identification of mathematically promising students is a difficult and challenging task. Identification might be done for pedagogical, legal, or financial reasons, but in all instances it should be done to maximize the number of mathematically promising students. Programs should have clear goals that guide the identification procedures; if there are no services for these students, there is no need to identify them. To avoid bias in the selection process, identification procedures should include a wide variety of measures to identify the broadest number of both females and males from diverse cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds. Measures might include any or all of the following depending upon the goals of the program to be offered:

  • self-selection
  • observations of students during the problem-solving process
  • teacher recommendation
  • parent recommendation
  • peer recommendation
  • standardized tests, especially out-of-level testing
  • measures of creativity
  • solutions to problems
  • grades in mathematics classes
  • student essays
  • performance in mathematics contests
  • tests of abstract reasoning ability
  • measures of spatial reasoning

Identification should be inclusive rather than exclusive; if a question arises about whether to include a student in the program, teachers should err on the side of inclusion. 

Some opportunities for promising students may require no formal identification process. These opportunities might include such things as investigating challenging, open-ended problems in mathematics classes, joining mathematics clubs, entering mathematics contests, using technology, or accessing mentors on the internet. These opportunities should be readily available to any student who desires to take advantage of them.

Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

School or district committees that are deciding on programs and materials for promising students must decide upon methods of organizing instruction and assessment for these students. There are many disagreements over the best programming for these students. Arguments over enrichment vs. acceleration, homogeneous vs. heterogeneous grouping, and theory vs. application are constant. Rather than recommend one particular course of study, this task force is suggesting that those involved in program development clearly understand the ramifications of decisions made pertaining to programming. We reiterate the need to err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion. Some of the most popular ways to empower mathematically promising students are tracking, acceleration, providing opportunities in the regular classroom, pull-out and magnet programs, and extra-curricular activities. To open opportunities for the greatest number of promising students, service providers must be cognizant of the dilemmas created by any particular program.

General Opportunities

Any program for mathematically promising students should consider the following questions:

  • Are programs consistent with recommendations from all three sets of Standards documents perhaps using recommendations from a higher grade level of the standards than the student’s current grade or age level?
  • Is technology being used to its fullest extent to enhance the mathematical power of promising students?
  • Are teachers, counselors, and/or other adults available and capable of challenging, supporting, and guiding these students appropriately?
  • Are there means of evaluating the program as well as the students in it to determine the level of success? 
  • Do the opportunities provide for the wide range of abilities, beliefs, motivation, and experiences of students who have mathematical promise regardless of their socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, and do the opportunities meet their continuum of needs?

Tracking or Accelerations

Traditionally, tracking and/or acceleration in many schools has had the effect of segregating students and locking out many promising mathematics students. If schools decide to track students, they should consider the following questions:

  • Are students chosen for classes based upon a general IQ score or because of a specific mathematical aptitude?
  • Are there students not identified for these classes who could benefit from them?
  • Are there students who are in top classes who are frustrated and confused by the high level of the work and who are encouraging the teacher to present problems at a lower level or are slowing the progress of other students?
  • Will students who are not included in these top classes have lower self-esteem and decide that they are not capable of becoming good mathematical thinkers?
  • Are methods of identifying the placement of students for tracks using a variety of measures to identify the broadest number of both females and males from diverse, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds ?
  • Are students allowed to self-identify for the top classes?
  • Are curriculum, instruction, and assessment qualitatively different and designed to meet the differing needs of promising students? Is the curriculum more challenging with provisions for individualization, faster pace, more higher-level thinking, and higher standards than other tracks?
  • Is there flexible movement from one track to another?

Opportunities in the Regular Classroom

The "regular" classroom may take a variety of forms. It may have a heterogeneous mix of students, it may have mainstreamed promising students, it may have a cluster group of talented students, or it may be a "middle track" in a school that is tracked. All mathematics classrooms need to provide opportunities for mathematically promising students because these students exist in every classroom even if they have somehow been tracked into lower groups. In providing for these students in the regular classroom, the following questions should be asked.

  • Are there resources, projects, problems, and means of assessment that allow for differences in the level of depth of understanding and engagement?
  • Do teachers have the pedagogical techniques to work with student populations with diverse learning needs and from diverse backgrounds?
  • Are there teachers who have been adequately prepared to work with mathematically promising students in the role of a facilitator?
  • Does the teacher have a contingency plan to determine when students have mastered mathematical concepts and skills so that they do not unnecessarily repeat material?
  • Are there opportunities for promising students to explore interesting problems with others of like interests and abilities?

Pull-out and Magnet Programs for the Mathematically Promising

Pull-out programs can be defined as programs that occur during the school day where students leave their regular classroom to engage in activities with other students of similar abilities or interest. Magnet programs are those full-time programs or schools that have been designed for promising students or for those with special interests in mathematics. If schools or districts decide to provide these programs for mathematically promising students, the following questions should be considered:

  • Are there students not identified for these programs who could benefit from them?
  • Will students who are not included in these programs have lower self-esteem and decide that they are not capable of becoming good mathematical thinkers?
  • Are methods of identifying the placement of students for these programs using a variety of measures to identify the broadest number of both females and males from diverse, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds ?
  • Are students allowed to self-identify for the program?
  • Are there appropriate opportunities in mathematics that have clearly-defined, comprehensive, integrated goals and are not simply isolated activities?
  • In pull-out programs, are activities coordinated with the regular classroom teacher so there is continual support and challenge?

Extracurricular Activities

Schools, universities, individuals and organizations should provide meaningful experiences for mathematically promising students outside of the regular classroom. These opportunities might include summer and after-school programs, mathematics contests, correspondence programs, mentoring, resources on the internet, and mathematics clubs and circles. In arranging for these opportunities, the following questions should be considered:

  • Are there barriers to becoming involved in extracurricular activities - monetary, criteria for entry, time, parental interest and involvement, busing, etc. that have not been addressed?
  • Do extracurricular activities for mathematically promising students enhance opportunities in the regular classroom?
  • Are the opportunities available to all interested students?

Cultural Influences

If America is to be number one in math and science by the year 2000, our society must value learning, particularly in mathematics. Issues that pertain to cultural influences include the following:

  • What is being done to counter the negative influence of peer and cultural pressures?
  • Is diversity celebrated and encouraged rather than merely acknowledged and tolerated?
  • What kinds of reinforcement and rewards are available for students who are interested in learning mathematics?
  • How does the culture communicate the value of mathematical literacy to students?
  • Have you engaged all stakeholders -parents, teachers, administrators and counselors, community members, churches, media, business, government, and the students themselves - in the process of supporting the development of the mathematically promising? 
  • Are there serious efforts being made to ensure that mathematically promising students from all groups, especially those from groups traditionally underrepresented in mathematical fields, have the constant, sincere, and deep commitment from a community of adults and peers to help them succeed? 

Teacher Preparation and Enhancement

Because teachers are the primary means of access to learning, it is very important that both in-service and pre-service programs for teachers at all levels include information on dealing with promising students. Regardless of the type of program being offered to promising students, teachers should have access to professional development, research information, and resources to deal with the following issues:

  • Are teachers trained to identify or recognize students with mathematical promise?
  • Do teachers have high levels of expectations for all students and do they continue to challenge top students to even higher levels of success?
  • Do teachers have the pedagogical and questioning techniques to extend students’ thinking?
  • Are teachers able to select and/or develop appropriate assessment tools that provide opportunities for students to create problems, generalize patterns, and connect various aspects of mathematics? 
  • Do teachers themselves have the mathematical power to make connections and the mathematical sophistication to see the big picture?
  • Are teachers able to make appropriate instructional decisions for these promising students?
  • Are teachers aware of, can they use, and do they have access to technological and other tools?
  • Do states require a strong mathematics background for all teachers of mathematically promising students?
  • Are teachers modeling the joy of lifelong learning of mathematics and are they learners of mathematics themselves?
  • Do teachers know how to act as facilitators giving students support in areas that might be beyond the teachers own expertise?
  • What mechanism is used to recommend that teachers who are incapable of encouraging and challenging promising students be re-educated or replaced?


The following is a non-prioritized list of recommendations from the Task Force to the Board of Directors. We realize that some of these recommendations will take time and money for planning and execution. However, some of these recommendations can be implemented immediately to begin to address the needs of the mathematically promising students.

  1. The NCTM should develop a clearinghouse for information on programs, research, and exemplary practices for promising students. This should be available on the internet, in printed form through NCTM publications, and at conferences. 
  2. The NCTM should provide an area on the internet or information about such areas for promising students. Students may use this to find interesting problems and solutions, talk to mathematics mentors, talk to students across the world about mathematics, find information on mathematics contests, see examples of exemplary work from other students, and provide information on undergraduate and graduate programs and scholarships available in mathematics. 
  3. The NCTM, the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), The American Mathematical Society (AMS), the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), the Association for the Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), and other concerned organizations should produce and publicize a joint position statement concerning the development of promising mathematics students. 
  4. The NCTM should establish a national advocacy group that includes industrial, political and community leaders to support such actions as securing funding for programs for promising students, encouraging stronger mathematics preparation for teachers of mathematically promising students, and providing incentives for good mathematics teachers of promising students at all levels. 
  5. The NCTM should provide a theme or strand at the annual meeting and regional conferences on mathematically promising students.
  6. The NCTM should include a problem section in each journal with problems to which individuals or groups of students can respond with solutions for possible publication and/or recognition in the journal. 
  7. The Educational Materials Committee should consider the production of a video, a book, pamphlets, and an executive summary that can be used for the advocacy and support of mathematically promising students. This information can be disseminated to the media, state and local boards of education, school personnel, parent and community organizations, mathematics and mathematics education departments in institutions of higher education, and church groups. 
  8. The NCTM, MAA, and AMS should form a joint task force to examine means of facilitating the lifelong mathematics education of promising students from pre-kindergarten through graduate school and into careers. This task force might consider developing critical and cooperative linkages among K-12 schools, institutions of higher education, industries, and professional organizations.
  9. New curricular standards, programs and materials should be developed to encourage and challenge the development of promising mathematical students, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic background.