When the board met on September 17 to discuss a proposed revision of the AIM program, Superintendent Winfred Roberson told the board that there was no consensus on either how to define giftedness or how to best measure it in terms of placement on standardized tests like the OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School Ability Test).
As it turns out, Davis is not the only district struggling to reconcile its practices with the research. Yesterday, NPR ran a story that asked many of the same questions that we as a community have been trying to grapple with.
Using a case study, NPR notes, “With a child so bright, some parents might assume that she’d do great in any school setting, and pretty much leave it at that.” But many who have scored high on IQ and other tests as children, have struggled in school.
Ron Turiello told NPR he “almost dropped out of high school. He says he was bored, unmotivated, socially isolated.” Now an attorney, he and his wife helped found a private school in Sunnyvale, Calif., exclusively for the gifted, called Helios.
According to NPR, while estimates vary, there are around 3 million students nationwide “who could be considered academically gifted and talented. The education they get is the subject of a national debate about what our public schools owe to each child in the post-No Child Left Behind era.”
NPR cites three big questions about: How to define them, how to identify them and how best to serve them.
How do you define giftedness? The article cites a number of difficulties in defining giftedness. The article introduces the concept of “asynchronous development,” which means “a student whose mental capacities develop ahead of chronological age.”
The concept uses an IQ test and indexes the score with age, “with 100 as the average; a 6 year old who gives answers characteristic of a 12 year old would have an IQ of 200.” However, these tests “become less useful as children get older because there is less ‘headroom’ on the test, especially for those who are already high scorers.”
So more recent research de-emphasizes IQ alone and focuses on other factors. However, “as the definitions get broader, the measurements get more subjective and thus, perhaps, less useful. Some centers for gifted children put out checklists of ‘giftedness’ so broad that any proud parent would be hard-pressed not to recognize her child.”
One of our big questions is how many students should be designated gifted. This is a critical question which forms the basis for the determination that 98 percent would be the cutoff, even as the Superintendent acknowledged that districts widely vary in the cutoff score and the determination was less educationally and research based and more based on a vague “conservation” of what is appropriate for Davis.
NPR finds widespread disagreement here. Linda Silverman, an educational psychologist and founder of the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development believes, for instance, “the population we should be focusing on is the top 2.5 percent to 3 percent of achievers, not the top 5 to 10 percent.” That might give credence to DJUSD’s 98 percent cutoff.
But Scott Peters, education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater disagrees. He says the question that every teacher and every school should be asking is, “How will we serve the students who already know what I’m covering today?” He notes, “In a school where most children are in remediation, he argues, a child who is simply performing on grade level may need special attention.”
If you recall, we have cited Scott Peters before. He describes that the underlying question is “what are we identifying students for?” He added, “The issue of group-specific norms is complex. The biggest issue is that we can use group-specific norms to identify more students – what we’ll get are students with the highest relative potential relative to their peers. However, since we will have then changed the Identification procedure we won’t necessarily be identifying students who can benefit from the programs we provide. We will need to differentiate services and programming to suit a more diverse population.”
Critically, he noted, “I think that an assessment system should err on the side of inclusion and should depend on the type of program being offered.” He added, “Right now we have a severe lack of actual programming in US schools for advanced students. We don’t have adequate programs for a variety of activities.”
The next question is how do you identify gifted students? Again, there is no agreed-upon standard. However, the district has moved away from teacher-based assessments and for good reason, as it seemed to exemplify unconscious bias. Still this a common practice: “The most common answer nationwide is: First, by teacher and/or parent nomination. After that come tests.”
NPR acknowledges the problem of underrepresentation: “Minority and free-reduced lunch students are extremely underrepresented in gifted programs nationwide. The problem starts with that first step. Less-educated or non-English-speaking parents may not be aware of gifted program opportunities. Pre-service teachers, says Peters, typically get one day of training on gifted students, which may not prepare them to recognize giftedness in its many forms.”
NPR writes: “Research shows that screening every child, rather than relying on nominations, produces far more equitable outcomes.”
Tests have their problems as well as “standardized tests produce results that can be skewed by background cultural knowledge, language learner status and racial and social privilege. Even nonverbal tasks like puzzles are influenced by class and cultural background.”
They continue: “Using a single test-score cutoff as the criteria is common but not considered best practice.”
“In addition, the majority of districts in the U.S. test children for these programs before the third grade. Experts worry that identifying children only at the outset of school can be a problem, because abilities change over time, and the practice favors students who have an enriched environment at home. Experts prefer the use of multiple criteria and multiple opportunities. Portfolios or auditions, interviews or narrative profiles may be part of the process.”
Finally, how to best serve gifted students is the biggest controversy in gifted education.
Professor Peters says that “many districts focus their resources on identifying gifted or advanced learners, while offering little or nothing to serve them.”
“There are cases where parents spend years advocating for students, kids get multiple rounds of testing, and at the end of the day they’re provided with a little bit of differentiation or an hour of resource-room time in the course of a week,” he says. “That’s not sufficient for a fourth-grader, say, who needs to take geometry.”
“I believe that every single day in school a gifted child has the right to learn something new — not to help the teacher,” Professor Silverman told NPR. “And to be protected from bullying, teasing and abuse.”
NPR said “Helping gifted students may or may not take many more resources.” But it does require a shift in mindset to the idea that “every child deserves to be challenged,” as Ron Turiello says.
NPR reports that “federal education policy is currently being reconfigured around some version of that idea.”
“The whole NCLB era, and really back to the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the 1960s, was about getting kids to grade level, to minimal proficiency,” said Professor Peters. “There seems to be a change in belief now — that you need to show growth in every student.”
NPR concludes, “That means, instead of just focusing on the 50 percent of kids who are below average, teachers should be responsible for the half who are above average, too. “That’s huge. It’s hard to articulate how big of a sea change that is.””
Where does that leave us? About where we were ten days ago, grappling with the same questions as everyone else.
—David M. Greenwald reporting