For a long time I have stayed relatively quiet on the issue of GATE/AIM. There have been a variety of reasons for that, but after watching the discussion on Thursday night, things have changed.
The debate that emerged on Thursday can be seen as one of inclusivity versus exclusivity. My concern is that the argument that we are over-identifying AIM (Alternative Instructional Model) students may at least unintentionally have a strong either racial or elitist component to it.
That view is bolstered by a comment made both on the Vanguard and Facebook: “When GATE [Gifted and Talented Education] testing was done by teacher recommendation of a largely white pool, no one complained of ‘over identification.’ Now that we have universal testing and the percentage of minorities in the GATE program has risen dramatically, they want to talk about ‘over identification.’”
Indeed, this chart provided by Professor Tobin White seems to be rather telling: the traditional measure – OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School Ability Test) ‒ would generate a GATE program that is 48% White and 44% Asian versus our current practices that has the program 60% White and 16% Asian. The TONI (Test of Nonverbal Intelligence) test advantages traditionally disadvantages students and allows the AIM program to be much more ethnically diverse than it would be using the OLSAT.
Professor Tobin White offers a critique of TONI. His research finds that the students administered the TONI were “six times more likely to qualify than those taking only the OLSAT.” They were also nine times more likely, according to Professor White, to score in the 99th percentile.
He writes, “These are radically different measures, yet they are being treated as equivalent in program placement decisions.”
He adds, citing research, “The TONI was not designed to replace broad-based intelligence tests but rather to provide an alternative method of assessment when a subject’s cognitive, language, or motor impairments rendered traditional tests of intelligence inappropriate and ineffectual.”
The problem is that he mis-characterizes the TONI, arguing that it was designed specifically for populations of deaf and hearing impaired, those with aphasia, dyslexia and other disorders related to spoken and written language, and those not proficient with written and spoken English.
He noted, “The TONI is designed to address only a limited range of the search and serve criteria, yet is being applied for all of them.”
He concluded, “The TONI is clearly identifying a more diverse group of students than the OLSAT, but as a function of student selection rather than test bias.”
However, Madhavi Sunder pointed out it is not merely verbally disadvantaged kids that the test is supposed to be targeted for – but low SES students – those who did not go to preschool, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who might not have the verbal skills to succeed on the heavily-verbal OLSAT.
“When you come from a low socio-economic background and you’re not necessarily going to have all of the those enrichment opportunities around language, and it’s precisely those kids who we think are at a disadvantage on the (OLSAT), there’s a lot of language that’s required to do that test,” she said.
“Generally there is some reason to believe that these particular students might have a false negative on the OLSAT,” she said. “They may actually have some gifted potential that was not apparent on the OLSAT.”
Professor Tobin White noted that it’s really one-third of the population that is affected. However, the purpose of the TONI is to identify students where language is an issue and where a verbal test might not be the best measure. “To get up to a third seems like a pretty big jump,” he said.
Professor White concludes that “the current re-screening process is fundamentally flawed.”
Ms. Sunder argued, “Fairness isn’t how many tests each person gets to take, but is every kid getting the opportunity to take the appropriate test for them.”
But the critics push back here.
While Susan Lovenburg conceded there is no perfect test, she argued, “What is concerning here is that one test is being thrown out in favor of a second test for some kids. That’s the kind of problematic element of what’s happening here.”
Ms. Lovenburg added, “Ultimately the question that is being asked is are we appropriately identifying the students that need these special services.” She said, “I’m not in favor of dismantling the self-contained GATE program. I don’t speak for any of my colleagues, they can speak for themselves. But I do see that value in the program for students who truly need the services.”
However, she stated, “I do have some significant concerns that we’re over-identifying students into the program… We need to address that as a district.”
Board Member Barbara Archer stated that 50 percent of the students, at least in this data set, qualified through the TONI for the AIM program. She said she wanted to understand the reasons why students were being re-screened through the TONI. “What I was told is that we don’t keep track of the reason why 50 percent of our students qualify using the TONI, and that’s concerning to me.”
She also said, “When you see that 50 percent of students were being qualified with the TONI, and you realize it is possible – although we don’t know because we don’t have the data – that you’re lumping together margin of error kids, ELL (English language learners) kids, low SES (socioeconomic status), and the various other reasons, that seems to me a suspect metric because you’re lumping so many different groups into a non-verbal category.”
She added, “It seems like the TONI is advantaging everyone.”
My concern with this argument is that I think Ms. Archer may unintentionally be missing a key point that the ELL kids, the kids with language impairment and the low SES kids may all in fact be disadvantaged by a heavily verbal test. Low SES kids may be disadvantaged in part because they lack language skills of other kids.
Back in 2012, Jann Murray-Garcia noted in a column in the Enterprise that she had concern and discomfort “about labeling some of our children as ‘gifted,’ and, by default, other children as ‘not gifted.’ “
She argued, “These labels, most often conferred on both sets of students in Davis in the third grade by a 45-minute IQ test, follow each student into the junior high tracking system, regardless of how that student has performed or developed in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades.”
“We define our children as gifted or not gifted with tests known since their inception in the days of the eugenics movement to be both culturally biased and economically exclusive,” she continued.
She argued the need for multiple assessments due to the potential for racial, class and linguistic discrimination.
She argued, “The fact that these alternatives to identification are expensive and labor-intensive is moot, unless we will say that we as the Davis community have accepted injustice and racial and class discrimination because it is the least expensive alternative.”
She argued that “it is the test… and not the children or their families or cultures that have been demonstrated to be deficient.”
“The recent history of GATE identification in Davis has been rife with race, class and linguistic inequality, artificially created and accepted by us as a community. That the district is now being held legally accountable for these inequities in its process of identifying and labeling children as gifted (or not) makes it a good time to collectively think about what we are doing and paying for in our local public education,” Dr. Murray-Garcia argued.
Does the TONI testing, which addresses at least some of Dr. Murray-Garcia’s concerns from a few years ago, go far enough in leveling the playing field? Or has it gone too far in the eyes of some on the school board?
I think we have to remember what the purpose of AIM is ‒ to identify gifted students ‒ and part of what TONI hopes to do is identify gifted potential that may not be apparent in the OLSAT.
While I think there are legitimate concerns driving this discussion, I think we need to be careful that we really understand what the TONI is designed to do. Therefore, I agree with Ms. Archer that we need data to understand who has been administered the TONI and why.
The danger here is that we decide without evidence that we are over-identifying AIM students through the TONI, that the TONI generates too large a number of identified students, and we throw it out based on that without a lot more understanding of what is happening and why.
The board needs to tread very carefully on these issues, but the commenter is exactly correct in stating that there was little worry about the over-identification of GATE students when it was largely a white upper middle class pool. So we need to be sure that, if we change things, we are changing things for the right reasons.
And then the question becomes – do we change who takes the TONI? Do we throw out the TONI? Do we throw out the OLSAT?
Do we have evidence that the system is broken as it stands now? It is striking to me that Professor White presented all of these slides on the identification process without any analysis of the back end. That is a gigantic red flag.
We are basing our entire critique on whom we select for a program and how many of those individuals are selected for a program ‒ with no assessment whatsoever on how they perform while in the program and the overall strengths and weaknesses of AIM.
I understand the need to separate the questions, but if those students are all doing well in AIM and AIM is serving their needs, then why in the hell do we care?
I know one thing – I won’t pretend to have the answers here. Again, I don’t think this is intentional on the part of the school board, but I’m troubled by this whole conversation.
—David M. Greenwald reporting