Recently, the State Board of Education in Maryland adopted new rules on the identification and accommodation of gifted kids. According to this Washington Post article, the goal was to set minimum standards for the districts. In some cases, districts will be identifying children as young as age three.
A few advocacy groups protested the decision, claiming it was wrong to label children. I'm not sure they have much of an argument, given that kids are labeled in many other cases. There is an incredible amount of diversity within the category of "Hispanic" for instance, yet districts often keep statistics on that sort of thing. But a more interesting question, for our purposes, is when should gifted kids be identified?
For years, the common answer among school districts was around 3rd grade. The idea seems to be that by this point, any disadvantages or advantages one came to school with would be ironed out, and you could actually assess if a child needed extra services. With all we now know about early childhood, though, this is becoming a pretty outdated belief. Children are learning since birth. Many children attend preschool these days, and hence are encountering academic work long before kindergarten. Indeed, many preschools with less of a formal curriculum naturally differentiate for different children. Here's a journal. The not-yet-literate ones draw. Others write stories.
Preschools often do this without official labels, but they have certain things going for them that primary schools do not. Small classes, for instance. Multiple adults per class. Less emphasis on a certain amount of material that must be covered in a given year. Flexibility that big school systems often don't have.
When you lack that flexibility, that ability to meet kids where they are, then labels do become necessary. Labels help schools meet kids' needs. I tend to think that the beginning of kindergarten tends to be a good time for an initial assessment. I also think that assessment should be continual, with decisions about gifted programs re-evaluated regularly. You can go in and you can go out.
When does your school district identify children?