My View: Is AIM an Elite Program? And is That a Bad Thing?


This week several people on both sides of the AIM issue suggested that we are missing the boat with the AIM discussion – the reality is that this is an elite program.  It is by design, and our community needs to have a discussion as to whether or not the district should be providing for high-achieving students in this way.

One argument is that the real achievement gap in the district is actually based on parental education rather than race or ethnicity.  The reasoning here, backed by solid data, is that if you have an African American or Latino student whose parent has a graduate degree that child has a much different socio-economic background than one with parents with less than a college degree.

Now to be clear, I was shown data back in 2007 and 2008 that showed that the achievement gap held even when controlling for parental education – but one cannot ignore this data.

The data I was shown was for 2015-16, which means prior to the changes in the AIM program.  At that time, 94.3 percent of the students in the AIM program had parents who had a college degree or went to graduate school, with 81 percent either with a graduate school or post-graduate education.  Compare that to 4.8 percent who had either no high school, high school, or some college and you see that the AIM program is drawing from well-educated parents.

Of course, it turns out that Davis has highly-educated parents to begin with.  The total pool shows that 78 percent have a college degree or above (57 percent with graduate school or above) compared to 11 percent with some college and eight percent with high school or less.

In short, Davis schools are elite and the AIM population is the elite of the elite.  This held even when the program was at 96 percent.

For some that might be the end of the story, but, if so, I find that end of story not very compelling.  After all, we live in a district where almost all of the students will graduate and the vast majority will go to college.  Do we not endeavor for our kids to go to Harvard and Stanford – or should we shun that because that would represent an elite education?

A large number of our students will go on to the University of California system, the best public higher education system, probably, in the world.

As I have pointed out a number of times, the district needs to make sure if they are going to have programs like AIM, that there is a fair way to determine who qualifies for the program – and while I agree with critics that the previous system had structural flaws, the current system is really no better and probably worse.

The superintendent in this case is correct – the current system is failing to identify gifted children who are not white or Asian.  That is a huge problem with the identification system, which was compounded by choices that did not make sense.

A quick perusal of the literature on the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test showed that it had no impact on minority identification in New York – why would we expect different in Davis?

On the other hand, the HOPE Scale has had some success elsewhere – so the question should be why is it not working in Davis?

The superintendent points out: “In Davis, however, the HOPE Scale pilot assessment did not, in either the first or second year it has been piloted, do any better than standardized tests in identifying giftedness in underserved populations.”

The question is, should we throw up our hands and say we cannot do it, or do we try to figure out why the HOPE Scale is not working in Davis?

The Vanguard has long railed on the achievement gap.  But from my standpoint, the fix for the achievement gap is to bring everyone up, not close it by bringing the top tier down.

The words of Tom Adams last week are important to put into context.

“We should not really say to students the only real opportunity to get a challenging curriculum is how well you perform on a certain battery of tests at a certain grade level in your academic career,” he said.  “We really ought to say that a challenging curriculum is the right of all students.”

Mr. Adams raises an important point here that I think needs to be emphasized.  We should not have one opportunity to get a challenging curriculum.  But, to me, that means that we need to find challenging curriculum for all students, not limit it to the top students.

The discussion on AIM is, in my view, wrongheaded.  The focus has been on a small program that serves a small subsection of the population.

Part of the problem has been a misperception as to the purpose of AIM.  The perception, as spelled out in 2015 by a Davis Enterprise editorial, was that the program was “initially designed only for students who had significant trouble learning in a regular classroom” and later, similarly, should be “serving the core students for whom AIM was originally intended.”

Indeed, in the fall of 2015, former Superintendent Winfred Roberson acknowledged that the program that is set up does not attempt to distinguish between high achievers and gifted students. Instead, it creates a bright line for 98th percentile achievement on the OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School Ability Test). Everyone who achieves at least the 98th percentile would make the program, and those who do not might have an alternative route in through some form of retesting – where again they would have to achieve at the 98th percentile.

“There is no easy way to distinguish between high achieving students and those who are intellectually gifted,” Winfred Roberson said. And thus they create a system that does not distinguish between the two.

As the Vanguard has previously reported, there is no evidence in the history of the program to back up the assertion that AIM or GATE was originally intended to serve gifted students who do not function well in the mainstream classroom, as opposed to high achievers.

Board President Barbara Archer also made an important point when she said, “The reason we are so stuck on this issue is that we have focused so much on identification and not enough on delivery of the program.”

While it is difficult to focus on the latter when there are still problems with the former, I think there is an important point here – the district should focus its attention on making sure that the AIM program meets the needs of the students in the program and, at the same time, make sure that our neighborhood or other programs are doing the same for the rest of the district.

Are we as a district going to take the position that we are not going to attempt to best serve the needs of our most advanced students?  If that is our position, I want to hear it articulated now.  But if that is not the case, the question should focus on how we can best serve the needs of our most advanced students as well as every student.

That should be our sole focus.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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21 thoughts on “My View: Is AIM an Elite Program? And is That a Bad Thing?”

  1. Don Shor

    If the goal is to increase the diversity of the program, you need to introduce some subjectivity to the selection process via nominations. You need to widen the talent pool. Testing doesn’t do that, so it needs to be balanced with other methods.


    But from my standpoint, the fix for the achievement gap is to bring everyone up,

    That won’t work. It’s a gap, not a level.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      I disagree on the last point Don. It is a gap, but the problem isn’t the gap itself but it is the group that is underachieving. Bring them up and you alleviate the concern.

      1. Don Shor


        the problem isn’t the gap itself

        H Jackson:

        If the focus is only on the gap in the standardized tests scores (which has basically been the case for years), then I think you’re right.

        Unless the district changes how it is going to measure the achievement gap, no policy they implement will reduce it. The achievement gap is traditionally defined as the disparity between test scores by minority students vs. white/Asian students. If you raise up all students’ test scores, you don’t reduce the achievement gap. You cannot target district programs at students based on their ethnicities. So there is not going to be a measurable reduction in the achievement gap unless there is a change in how it’s defined. Do you see that as likely?

        1. H Jackson

          Don Shor:  The achievement gap is traditionally defined as the disparity between test scores by minority students vs. white/Asian students. If you raise up all students’ test scores, you don’t reduce the achievement gap. You cannot target district programs at students based on their ethnicities. So there is not going to be a measurable reduction in the achievement gap unless there is a change in how it’s defined. Do you see that as likely?

          In my view, there is nothing about being white or Asian that necessarily pre-disposes a student to succeed or not succeed.  To argue otherwise will also take the conversation to some ugly places.  I see DJUSD graduates who are Latino or African-American going to “elite” colleges like Stanford, USC, and Ivy League schools.  But consistently they’ve been from college-educated families, often with a parent or two who are UCD faculty.

          If the district will focus on performance disparities based on parent education level, then I think there will be better alignment of resources on what long term goals are important.  UC Davis consistently identifies students as being “first generation” college students (at present they say about a third of their students are first gen).  Presumably it is a measure of how well the university is addressing social mobility of Californians as part of its mission.

          As a parent, I don’t give as much importance to CAASPP scores (the name of the current widely-used K-12 standardized test in California) as the district does.  I’m not sure that parents of students who are identified as “achievement gap” concern are pinning their worth as parents on seeing a certain score on those standardized tests.  My personal aspirations and hopes for my kids extend beyond high school graduation.  I hope to see my kids prepared to continue to college or an equivalent kind of experience after graduation.

          The difference is that I am college-educated and I know something about the pathway to get my kids to that point.  Parents who don’t have college education don’t know as well what that pathway looks like.  It bothers me that most district administrative staff (all college educated) have kids of their own who consistently follow a trajectory toward college.  But the way that they raise their own kids is not exactly reflected in the recommendations that they give to parents who are not college educated.  I think there are implicit bias issues involve.

          If the district will measure the achievement gap based on parent education level, that will focus resources on a more meaningful end — after HS graduation, matriculation to a college education experience.  As far as the DJUSD student is concerned, race/ethnicity and income level are less mutable characteristics and shouldn’t have to be determining factors in long term results.  But a college education is something that is in the student’s power, and it is something that the district can change meaningfully.  If a student’s parents have no college education, it is meaningful if that student matriculates to college and graduates.


        2. H Jackson

          Don’t know what happened.  I posted a response to you here.  I pressed the “Post” button and it showed up in the comment string.  I pressed the “reload” button on my browser and it disappeared. I will try to reconstruct my response at a later time.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            A whole bunch of stuff ended up in the spam, I cleared it. (Don please check periodically as there was stuff from last week in there too)

        3. David Greenwald Post author

          And along those lines what I think we ought to do is look at the population of underperforming students and try to improve their performance (not saying it’s going to be easy Keith). Let’s say you have a class with two large clusters – one at the B+/A- range and one at the D+/C- range. We don’t want to close the gap by reducing the performance of the B+/A- group. By the same token, if we improve both groups, we haven’t shrunk the gap, strictly speaking, but we have improved performance. That’s what I’m getting at.

    2. H Jackson

      Greenwald:  “But from my standpoint, the fix for the achievement gap is to bring everyone up,”

      Don Shor:  “That won’t work. It’s a gap, not a level.”

      It depends on how the achievement gap is viewed and measured.  If the focus is only on the gap in the standardized tests scores (which has basically been the case for years), then I think you’re right.  The ultimate goal shouldn’t be to see the test score gap close, but to see that a student from a non-college educated family has a much improved chance of completing college-level education.

  2. Tia Will

    I disagree with one implication of your article that you may not have intended. I do not believe that it is anyone’s goal to limit the educational opportunities of those at the top of the academic performance scale. What I believe, and think that some others may agree with, is that the amount of time, energy, focus and yes, dollars, that are being spent on this single program is distracting from and limiting the opportunities for those that have not been fortunate enough to test in on one particular opportunity to do so. This, I object to strongly.

    I simply do not care about the finger pointing about whose fault this is, the advocates or the detractors. What I do care about is designing a system ( my personal belief is in movement towards universal differentiation) that enables all children to learn to their own maximal potential. I personally do not believe that GATE as currently structured moves us towards that goal but I am going only on the discussion here and my teacher daughters opinion having no personal expertise.

  3. Howard P


    Many gifted students do extremely well in the “general population” at school… they need no program… some of the gifted students do not do so well… the latter group is who need a program designed to get them reaching their potential.  Often it is those who need to be challenged, but are not ‘comfortable’ stretching their wings, in a conventional setting… whether it be socially (feeling uncomfortable, being ridiculed for their ‘difference’) or other (ex. ‘learning styles’). We need to provide a strong program for them.

    What has happened, is having a child in GATE/AIM seems to foster “bragging rights” for the parents. I see no need to support a program based on providing “bragging rights”… it is actually counter-productive to a child as they become an adult.


  4. Anne Hance

    Quoting from David’s article: “As the Vanguard has previously reported, there is no evidence in the history of the program to back up the assertion that AIM or GATE was originally intended to serve gifted students who do not function well in the mainstream classroom, as opposed to high achievers.”

    I believe this is not true. The original 5th-6th grade “HAPS” (High Academic Potential Student) class at North Davis Elementary always contained a mix of successful high achievers and less successful high potential students. Reading through the 1967 Project Talent report by Paul D. Plowman and  Joseph P. Rice of the California State Dept. of Education, it seems that eligible program participants were all interviewed and specifically recommended or not for the program.  The implication in the report is that in both Project Talent demonstration classes (in Lompoc and in Davis) many participants were indeed purposefully selected because they were not functioning well in their regular class. Also, a few students in the Davis  class  who were functioning well in their regular classes but could benefit significantly from the different sorts of academic challenges available in the HAPS class were added to the mix to create a balance.

    The 1967 report is interesting reading because it focuses on the goals and curricula of the HAPS class in a way that I think Tom Adams would appreciate.

    As a matter of full disclosure I should mention that I had 2 children in the HAPS class and was later employed by the Davis School District as an assistant in the Mentally Gifted Minor (MGM) program of which the HAPS class was a part.

    1. Don Shor

      The program I was in during the 1960’s in San Diego was a small class comprised of certain high achievers along with some who tested well but weren’t performing well in a regular classroom. So much like what you’re describing.

    2. Howard P

      I affirm what Don and Anne say…

      Spent 2 years in a “G&T” program (elsewhere)… made a huge difference in my development as a person… by HS, was fully comfortable… but I was a “slacker”… only tied for 9th out of a class of 435 … with a NMS, and a combined SAT of 1590.

      My one 6th grade teacher realized that I might ‘hold back’ (had already been singled out as 1st in my sixth grade) and recommended me for testing… so I also agree with Don as to referrals… that is crucially important, where the teacher can see, day by day, that someone has a spark that could die out for lack of tinder… in my experience, it was a one-on-one meeting with a professional (psychologist?) who gave me what was then known as an IQ test…

    3. Anne Hance

      Incidentally, my third and youngest son also qualified for the gifted program and was interviewed for placement in the HAPS class. We were counseled that despite his eligibility for the class it was not the best choice for him. His high level aptitudes were different from his brothers’ and even though he exhibited similar high level thinking and problem solving skills the curriculum of the HAPS class would not be of significant benefit. We agreed.

  5. Dave Hart

    I’ve said it before and I guess I have to say it again:  What Davis parents really want (except for those Type A parents who want bragging rights) is for their child to have an individual educational program that is tailored to maximize the progress for their child.  Batch processing of childhood education along the lines of mass produced factory items is obsolete but we keep doing it because that’s how we have set up our educational system.  30 units on the conveyor belt through grade 12.  Truly gifted children always self-select out for enriched opportunity:  high school students taking college level math at UCD, musically talented kids getting private lessons, language gifted kids taking extra classes outside of school, Odyssey Of the Mind, etc.  The only real factor that affects our ability as parents to provide the extra stimulation or enhanced experience is money or its corollary, time.  Money to pay for those outside resources, the time to oversee and be involved outside our work lives.  AIM, I believe, is an easy solution for the small number of parents whose children are served in the program.  The parents whose children do not test out for the program are on their own.  This is hardly an equitable use of tax dollars. Every child has some particular strength or interest upon or around which an educational plan could be constructed that could be viewed as exceptional, not just based on achievement or traditional measures of academics.

  6. Grant Acosta

    I think something that is missing from the discussion is the insistence of a self-contained GATE program in Davis.  Trustee Sunder, in her comments at the recent Board meeting, referenced Palo Alto as a comparable district in terms of parent education level.  That got me interested in finding out how they run their GATE program.  According to their website,, not only have they eliminated formal identification of GATE students via testing methods (due to lack of state funding), but they also do not use a self-contained model.  In fact, many academically strong school districts do not use a self-contained GATE model (Irvine, Los Gatos, San Luis Obispo to mention a few).

    I suspect that most folks in town have the impression that a self-contained AIM model is the norm like I did, but now I see that there are plenty of high-ranking school districts that have somehow managed to be successful without segregating 3rd graders.  What makes Davis so different that kids need to be separated?

    Part of the resentment from those opposed to the self-contained GATE model, I believe, is that those kids who don’t make the cut on a single test are missing out on learning opportunities because they are viewed as “not smart enough” to benefit from.  In an inclusive model, I see more opportunities for GATE identified and non-GATE identified students to partake in deeper learning.  I would remind AIM proponents that in Davis, the large majority of students do not fall that far below the 98th percentile and would not hinder the learning capability in a well-run classroom.

    (below copied from the Palo Alto Unified School District):

    Due to the elimination of funding for the GATE by the State, PAUSD has suspended the identification of GATE students. The District remains committed to serving the individual needs of high achieving and gifted students regardless of GATE identification.
    Palo Alto Unified school District’s Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) provides educational opportunities that recognize the performance capabilities of gifted students as well as addresses the unique needs and differences associated with having these abilities. The goals of Gifted and Talented Education can be defined as follows:

    To provide students with opportunities for learning that maximize each students’ abilities.
    To assist and encourage students to acquire skills and understanding at advanced academic and creative levels.
    To aid students in expanding their abilities to communicate and apply their ideas effectively.
    To engender an enthusiasm for learning.

    Program Model
    In elementary and middle school, all students receive differentiated instruction within the mainstream classroom. Teachers enrich and extend the core curriculum for gifted students by differentiating instruction, content, and process. Through differentiated assignments developed to meet their academic and intellectual needs, GATE students are able to explore and expand to their maximum potentials. These differentiated opportunities are available to all students, not just those who are formally identified. Advanced math courses are available in 7th grade and continue through 12th grade. In high school, gifted students are able to take advanced, honors, and advanced placement courses in a wide variety of subjects.

    Identifying Gifted and Talented Students (Identification Process Suspended)
    The District’s identification procedures are equitable, comprehensive and ongoing. Formal identification for GATE begins in the spring of 3rd grade. Nominations may come from teachers, parents or others who know the student. Once students are nominated, a combination of multi-measures must be used to identify students as gifted and talented:

    Standardized test scores
    Checklists of Indicators of Giftedness
    Multiple Intelligences Checklist
    Teacher judgment, including class work and grades
    A non-reading test of cognitive processing skills (the Ravens Progressive Matrices),
    Individual Test scores
    Out of district data

    The GATE standards and the Ed. Code require us to use information from many sources before identifying a student for GATE. These standards do not allow us to identify based on only one of the above measures. Parents are notified by letter if their child qualified as a GATE student. Parents can request that their child not be identified.

    GATE Resources for Parents and Students
    A list of resources for gifted children used by Palo Alto parents and teachers includes:

    Organizations for the Gifted
    Summer Programs
    Enrichment Programs
    Contests for Kids

    1. Don Shor

      Palo Alto stopped identifying students for gifted education, declared that their classrooms provided differentiated instruction, and basically abandoned it. I think there are some, perhaps a very vocal minority, in Davis who would like to do the same thing here.
      This spurred the growth of several private schools in the Palo Alto area.
      An interesting perspective here:

      1. Don Shor

        In Florida: Seminole school district expands gifted programs

        … a successful push by the Seminole County school district to expand its gifted programs, particularly in elementary schools such as Wicklow that serve mostly minority students from low-income families.
        …since 2013, Seminole has doubled the number of black, Hispanic, English-learning and low-income youngsters in its gifted program, the district announced recently. Its overall gifted-student population in elementary schools has increased by more than 500 to 2,136, a 34 percent increase.
        …Seminole’s effort was boosted by a five-year, $2.4 million federal grant and a partnership with the University of Central Florida. The effort focused first on five Sanford-area elementary schools with the most disadvantaged student populations, Wicklow among them. Administrators plan to expand it to seven more schools in coming years.

        The new effort included expanding the pool of students evaluated for gifted programs and using a screening tool that doesn’t rely heavily on early literacy skills, which could be a disadvantage for some children, particularly those still learning in English.

        Students who pass the screenings are then given an intelligence, or IQ, test to help determine if they qualify for gifted services.

        …The new effort tapped UCF professors to train teachers on how to recognize gifted students from all backgrounds.
        Wicklow now holds regular meetings to talk about all its students, pulling together data and observations from staff to see which young students should be screened, even before all students are in second grade.

        That process helped identify a kindergartener who started school speaking only Mandarin, Herndon said.

        The little boy might have been overlooked previously. But in one of the student meetings, a teacher shared that the boy was learning English rapidly and far more quickly than usual. Others also mentioned he seemed extraordinarily bright. He was evaluated and is now in the gifted program.

        But plenty of students who are evaluated don’t qualify for the gifted program. Those youngsters, however, can then take part in new “talented” classes that Project ELEVATE also has added to those campuses. Like gifted programs, those offerings aim to give bright youngsters more in-depth projects to tackle.

        “If they don’t make it, it’s okay,” Herndon said. “They’re being challenged.”

        If a district really wants to provide gifted education to those who would benefit from it, it can be done. The diversity of the program can be increased. It is difficult to understand why the current board and administration are unable to develop these methods for DJUSD when they are out there being done by other districts already, and when education experts have developed clear methods for doing so.
        It suggests there is not a genuine commitment to gifted education in the Davis school district.

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