Early this week the word started to emerge that the superintendent had put together an AIM proposal capable of garnering a 5-0 vote. It has been my hope for some time that a 5-0 would be able to put this issue to rest.
The fact is that, while supporters of the current AIM program can point to positives including the effectiveness of the program for students who had been struggling with the mainstream classroom, critics were right to point to problems with identification, including an overall fairness in the identification process.
A good proposal had the potential to fix the identification process while alleviating the most glaring concerns. Achieving a 5-0 vote would have embodied the threading of that needle and enabled the district to move forward to what most people would consider more pressing concerns, while alleviating the anxiety and fears of parents whose kids are succeeding in the current program.
Unfortunately, the promise from earlier this week that a deal might be struck agreeable to all sides quickly vanished upon reading the crux of the proposal.
People in the program have directed me to a number of technical concerns about the structure of the program, such as the replacement of the AIM coordinator, among other things. They argue that there are many “small” changes throughout the proposal that they believe will undermine the quality of the program. I am going to focus here on some core concerns.
The superintendent made the decision to raise the qualification score cutoff to the 98th percentile. What is interesting is that they made that decision despite the acknowledgment that “[t]here is no consensus in the research or among experts about the qualification score.” Their survey indications are that qualification scores range from the 90th percentile at the low end to the 99th percentile at the high end in GATE programs throughout California.
I have been told that the AIM advisory committee itself has talked about raising the cutoff to 98 – so that by itself is not the problem.
What is the problem? Without research or consensus to guide the district, they acknowledge that the impact of raising or lowering the score simply will “have a direct effect on the projected number of students who qualify.” And in this case, they are using the selection criteria to reduce the AIM identified students down to two classrooms with a total of 63 to 73 students, which represents a drastic decline from the current number of AIM students which has ranged from 102 to 131 over the last decade.
That would seem to be problematic from a number of different perspectives. One of the discussions we have had over the last few months is that AIM really targets two populations – those who are intelligent and high achievers, and those who are intelligent and low achievers.
My discussion with some of the critics of the program suggests that they would favor a smaller AIM that is comprised of students who are intelligent but struggle in the mainstream classroom. However, this proposal does not create that kind of AIM program.
Here, “All 3rd graders would take the OLSAT and students scoring 98th percentile or above will qualify for AIM.”
The problem with using the OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School Ability Test) is that “the test has been shown to reflect a higher level of success for white and Asian students.” Therefore, “it is essential for the district to include safeguards that identify underrepresented groups of students including English Learners, low income, Hispanic, and African American.”
The district acknowledges this, but then again, they also acknowledge that we have an achievement gap – even as little has been done to effectively close that gap.
The district seeks to increase the participation of minorities in multiple ways. First, they are implementing a pilot project using the HOPE (Having Opportunities Promotes Excellence) Scale. The district notes, “The HOPE Scale assessment was designed to identify and serve high-potential students from low-income families. Classroom teachers complete the HOPE scale for each of their students by answering eleven questions using a six point frequency response scale. The future use of the HOPE in DJUSD may mitigate for the inherent biases associated with other assessments.”
Right now the district is going to use it as a pilot rather than a qualification factor, to “track how it aligns with our process.”
Skeptics point to the fact that, ten years ago, teacher evaluations were a big part of the GATE identification process and were discontinued when it was showed by Jann Murray-Garcia that teachers rarely selected minority children to be part of the GATE program. So that leads us to wonder why the district expects that to change now.
The other piece of this puzzle is risk factors. The district writes, “Research confirms that it is important to identify risk factors in the AIM Identification process to mitigate for inherent biases identified in the assessments of intellectual abilities. Steps must be taken to ensure the identification process also serves underrepresented populations. After a review of the AIM Master Plan and relevant research, the administration believes that risk factors may impact a student’s potential or performance on tests of school ability and/or achievement.”
The district explicitly identifies four categories of risk factors: economic, health, language/culture, and discrepant indicators (or a wide range of scores on indicators of school success).
That sets up a two-stage process. The first stage is to take the OLSAT and the second stage is to review the “risk factors and determine what test would be appropriate for students who did not qualify on the OLSAT.”
Students without risk factors but who scored in the standard error of measure on the OLSAT will be rescreened using either the CogAT (Cognitive Abilities Test) or the Slosson Intelligence Test. For those with risk factors related to language or culture, the TONI (Test of Nonverbal Intelligence) may be administered. For those with economic risk factors, the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test may be administered.
What is less clear is the use of the word “may” and under what condition someone would be retested. Back in 2005, the district set the goal to retest students with risk factors as well as those who had scored within the standard error of measurement – plus or minus 5 percent. Back then it was set that the qualification score for AIM was 96th percentile or 95th percentile with one risk factor, or 94th percentile with two or more risks.
With the new process, it is less clear what would trigger the re-test. What is clear is that, instead of establishing a hardline of 98 percent plus retesting for those with risk factors, the district sees a program that is set at 63 to 73 students.
What is interesting is that, while the district will project the total number of students with this process, we do not see the projected ethnic/racial breakdown of those students. The constrained number leads us to believe that we will not see the level of minority participation we currently do.
We know currently, from Tobin White’s research, that under the OLSAT at the 96th percentile level, 44 percent of identified students are Asian with another 48 percent white – meaning that only 8 percent of those identified under OLSAT are Black, Hispanic, or other ethnic minorities. We expect that number to shrink further under the 98th percentile standard. The use of the TONI remedies that by increasing the percentage of Hispanics to 31 percent and Blacks to 8 percent.
The question now is, with a 63 to 73 student program, what percentage of that is expected to be selected by OLSAT alone? Currently, OLSAT accounts for one-quarter of all identifications, private testing another quarter and the rest through the TONI. Obviously, that will change drastically now.
A key question is what percentage of current minority students in AIM would qualify under the proposed changes.
Overall, I think we have to ask this question, as Don Shor did last night, how is this proposal better for the students than the status quo? That is really the bottom line.
As stated at the outset, it is not that we believe that there are not problems, especially with the current identification of AIM students. Clearly there are, and they can be remedied. But for the last two months we were led to believe that this was not going to represent a massive upheaval – and cutting the program in half appears to be exactly that.
If we are going to do that we should have a very clear academically-based rationale for doing so. Instead, as noted earlier, the changes seem to be aimed at coming up with a number, rather than the number resulting from some academically-based rationale.
Hopefully, the board members can take this report and forge a way to achieve the type of lasting consensus we need in the community on this issue. As it stands now, that is not going to happen and, while the board majority has the votes today to impose this proposal, we will have a secondary fight during next year’s election.
—David M. Greenwald reporting