My View: What is Best For Our Kids?

Board President Alan Fernandes makes a point
Board President Alan Fernandes makes a point

In yesterday’s column, I laid out my continued concern about making changes that are not based on any sort of educational research as to the best program. I’m referring specifically to the potential change from a 96th percentile threshold on the OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School Ability Test) to a 98th percentile threshold – not only on the OLSAT but on all exams the student takes.

There is a critical anecdote that one of the parents who spoke during public comment gave. The mother talked about the fact that her daughter had ADHD and struggled in the mainstream classroom. She was given the WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) test, and now that she is in AIM, she is doing fantastically.

But what was interesting to me – and I’m not sure anyone really picked this up, her daughter had actually scored a 97 on the WISC. And so, while the daughter is currently in the AIM program, she would not be under the new threshold because she scored below the 98th percentile on the WISC.

This is a point that seems lost in this discussion – are the kids who parents say are doing better in AIM now, but who wouldn’t be in AIM under the new proposal, having their needs best served by this change?

I am still a little baffled by the lack of foundation laid for some of these changes. I’ll reiterate the exchange between Board Vice President Madhavi Sunder and Superintendent Winfred Roberson.

As Madhavi Sunder put it, “It looks as though this proposal seriously limits access to the self-contained program.” She asked for the educational or other rationale for raising the cutoff score to 98.

Superintendent Roberson responded that they didn’t know the rationale for the 96th percentile score either. His report acknowledges that the scores in other districts range from 90 to 99 across communities. He reiterated that this was based on a number of conversations and he even acknowledged, “We are not married to that number.”

I think we need to revisit the lottery question posed by Alan Fernandes, as well, here because I think it really has much broader implications.

Alan Fernandes said, “The existence of the lottery in my view seems to suggest that for those who are unsuccessful in the lottery, we’re not meeting a need.” He said this “suggests that there are some people whose needs are not being met.”

Superintendent Roberson tried to sideswipe it, saying that “it means we don’t have enough seats.”

But Mr. Fernandes pushed the point, “For people who want to be in the program… For those who are unsuccessful in the lottery aren’t able to be in those classrooms that we believe are best suited for them.”

Mr. Roberson continued, “Having the lottery shows me there’s more demand for the program than we have seats.” And he acknowledged that it was, in Mr. Fernandes’ words, “a laudable goal to no longer have a lottery.”

But can’t we extend this conversation further? By raising the bar from the 96th percentile to the 98th percentile, are we not in fact doing the exact same thing? We are taking a population of students, whose needs are being served currently, and basically cutting that number in half.

If we had a good reason to do that, I would be more understanding. But the superintendent who is recommending the policy change cannot adequately articulate why we need to do it. What is broken that we are trying to fix here?

At least with regard to the end of private testing and the streamlining of the re-testing policy, I agree there is something broken.

A point raised by a commenter yesterday bears further discussion. They said, “I am a bit confused about your position.  You say you agree with the elimination of private testing and that the TONI may have been used a bit too generously, but you also seem to disagree with shrinking the program.  If 27% qualified through private testing and a substantial percentage through the TONI, wouldn’t you expect a drop by at least 35 – 40% even with keeping the OLSAT qualifying score at 96?”

I think to clarify my position – my problem is not with shrinking the program. I really have no opinion at all on what size the program ought to be.

I think private testing is problematic in that it creates at least the perception – and again, I am frustrated that we have no data on this – that affluent parents are using their resources to get their children into the program through private testing.

The fact is that we are talking about ending a process, and we do not know how many people are using private testing because they moved into the district after OLSATs are administered in the third grade versus how many are doing it as a way to get around insufficient OLSAT test scores – and that is a problem in my view.

But I came away from Thursday night reasonably satisfied we had a work around for people moving into the district after the OLSATs are administered, and I agree that the other is problematic.

Bottom line, whatever the changes to private testing and the streamlining of the retesting policy brings the program to, I’m fine with. I see that as a valid reason for shrinking the program. And really, the goal here is to make the identification process fair rather than shrink the program.

Whereas, I think the issue of raising the OLSAT cut-off from the 96th to the 98th percentile really is about shrinking the program. I agree with Eric Hays, this is size defining the program, rather than need defining the size.

Let us say that we eliminate private testing, we move to streamline the re-testing policy for kids who have the risk factors and those who test within the margin of error, but we leave the threshold at 96 and the program shrinks to 90 to 100 – I don’t have any problem with that. The key question that does not seem to be asked enough is whether we are meeting the needs of the kids in the program, and whether we are meeting the needs of those not in the program.

To reiterate and hopefully clarify myself, my objection is not to shrinking the program, it is to making changes that have no solid foundation.

Another commenter stated, “In David’s apparent view, we should not raise the bar, except for making sure that minorities/at-risk students are included irrespective of tests.  OK.  Let’s just be honest about that, if that is what folk want to do.”

This is not a fair representation of my view or even the district’s policies. My objection is that the superintendent acknowledged that there is no agreed-upon standard for the threshold to enter the program, and he could articulate no reason for making one, other than some vague notion repeatedly articulated that they reached this decision based on conversation – and how and to what end is not specified.

Minorities and at-risk students are not being included, irrespective of tests. Here there is actual research to back up the policy. The OLSAT has been shown to be biased against low SES (socioeconomic status) and those with lower language-based skills. For those students, the district believes that there are better tests. Those students still must qualify on the new battery of tests.

That’s not a policy to make sure that minorities and at-risks students are included “irrespective of tests,” it’s a policy to make sure that they are taking a test that will appropriately assess their abilities.

The bottom line is that I want to express my frustration that we do not have adequate data to drive some of these considerations. And I want to express the desire to hear how these changes will benefit the students who are both in the program and not in the program. That discussion, in my view, was largely absent from both the district’s presentation and the board’s discussion.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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  1. ryankelly

    We need to work to understand the scoring on the tests. 97% sounds very close to 98% but the student missed many questions to drop to that lower band.  96% is even farther away, with many more questions missed.  Giftedness is often times identified as 98% and above, but schools will drop the qualifying score lower depending on the average overall scores.  If the norm is 50%, the 90% would be reasonable for that district.  For our District, 30% are GATE identified under the current system.  To deliver GATE instruction, the District has to identify the band that will identify students who are truly abnormally gifted and not then overload it with bright high-achievers.  What parents clearly want is an honors program with accelerated curriculum.  What you are proposing is to give them that.  If this is what you want to do, I demand that the District create a GATE program that is not AIM, and stop referring to AIM as our program for gifted students.

    1. David Greenwald

      My problem is that I didn’t hear that kind of analysis coming from the Superintendent. There may be good reasons for it – but they have not been well articulated by the board or the administration.

    2. Sam

      People are upset you are taking away their AP 3rd grade classes and have no clue why you GATE students need assistance.

      I agree, keep the current AIM program (that parents seem to enjoy) and develop an actual GATE program to help those kids that really need it.

    3. Grant Acosta

      Ryan – I believe the OLSAT only has 60 questions (not entirely sure).  If that is the case, we may be talking about 1 question determining the difference between 97% and 98%.  That’s why I have asked, is there any real significant difference between a 98% versus even a 95% score?

  2. Grant Acosta

    Regarding the 98% cutoff – I have heard it stated that there is in fact a large range of ability even within the 96% – 100% score range in the AIM class.  The argument is that if you think of the far right of the bell curve, the 100% students can vary from very gifted to super gifted. Perhaps the push to narrow the field is in fact coming from the upper echelon of the the AIM crowd and/or the AIM teachers themselves rather than the anti-AIM crowd (as I think most people assume).

    1. DavisAnon

      UIt’s a percentile test score, so there is no 100%.

      If this was coming from the AIM teachers, why are they so opposed to this?

      This is the Board’s determination to shrink the program.  No one has made any attempt to show that it might have some educational value, because it doesn’t.

      They’d be happiest if it went away. Didn’t you hear Lovenburg speak of her wish for the one room school in her speech at the Board meeting? At least it’s good to know that’s what she envisions. We can just abolish grade levels, language and other special programs, etc. She believes one size DOES fit all, she just won’t say it out loud very often.

      1. hpierce

        We’ve had children (3) who were in K-1, K-1-2, and 3-4.  They thrived.  Probably due to truly ‘gifted’ teachers.  a K-8, just don’t see.  To disparage a multi-level classroom, even at a limited span, shows me that the owner of that opinion would not qualify for AIM/GATE.  In fact, they should be in another “special” program.

        1. DavisAnon

          When did I say I’m opposed to a multilevel classroom? That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m a strong proponent of ability grouping rather than just assuming every child of a certain age is at the same place. That’s a far cry from randomly throwing everyone in a single room and expecting a teacher to magically meet the very disparate learning needs and learning styles of every one of those 30 kids. Cut the class sizes way down and cluster group kids so our very dedicated but overworked teachers have the optimal environment to help each child.

          I’d prefer a system where kids moved to the next grade fluidly and based on when they’ve mastered the material, not in lock step with an academic calendar, but I fully realize that would be a logistical nightmare. Children learn at different speeds and to hold their learning back because it’s more convenient is not the way to light the spark of a love of learning.

          And let’s abolish this idea that somehow it’s the job of kids who learn faster to teach the others. Every child is there to learn – each and every day, all day, not just for a few hours for a pull out. Children haven’t gone through a training program on how to teach, so why saddle an 8 year old With the task of how to best help another 8 year old learn? What kind of message are you sending to the 8 year who is being taught by another child? If children are teaching each other, they should all be doing it, not just making some the “teachers”.

    2. hpierce

      Actually, I think there are very few “anti-AIM” folk.  There are “AIM skeptics”, “AIM supporters/reformists”, and “AIM zealots“.  I view myself as a supporter/reformer.

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