Sunday Commentary: Did the Superintendent Successfully Thread the Needle on AIM?



There are people who will undoubtedly want an even smaller AIM and there are those who will argue for a larger AIM, but on an issue as divisive as AIM has been for as long as it has been around, the proposal that the Superintendent has put forward may work for now.

There are disagreements, to be sure. There are those concerned about not having an AIM/GATE coordinator instead of a Differentiation Specialist, but there are probably ways to massage that to make it acceptable to some of the skeptics. Reinstating a GATE counselor might be another direction some would like to see things go.

But these are not the core issues. Most people saw the private testing allowance as “unfair” and, while there are legitimate concerns about students coming into the district after the testing is complete, the district should be able to account for whatever number of students that turns out to be.

The core issue is really where you set the AIM qualification score. It is an issue that troubled me greatly with the original proposal by the Superintendent. First, the Superintendent admitted that the number was arbitrary. And, while the number being set originally at the 96th percentile was just as arbitrary, it is what we have grown used to.

There is no educational justification for setting the qualification score at 96% versus 90% versus 99%. The Superintendent in September justified it based on a vague notion of discussions he had with stakeholders and the notion that this is the number that seems to fit in the district.

The biggest implication of raising the qualification score from 96 to 98 is that the size of the program will decline, perhaps dramatically. The self-contained program could shrink to somewhere between 63 and 73 students.

As Eric Hays, a parent, put it during a public comment, “Why has the district moved to raise the qualification from something that was already above the average of that scale?” He noted the lack of rationale for that change and called it deeply suspicious that one school board member said that “I support AIM, just smaller.”

For him, this was size defining the program, rather than need defining the size.

Along with size comes the question of diversity of the program. Will shrinking the program make it less diverse and more white and Asian? The district is trying to avoid that, clearly, through the formalization of risk factors and the implementation of the HOPE scale.

When the Vanguard asked Superintendent Roberson what the projected ethnic breakdown of AIM would be, he was unable to provide that answer.

Board President Alan Fernandes, perhaps looking for a middle ground, suggested to the board that they phase in the program over time to avoid the drastic changes. He noted that “there’s change that may result ultimately from our actions, but it’s not earth shattering totally 180 degrees. We’re still going to do what we do here. What we do here is really serve not only the most unique and gifted and talented and high achieving students, but we endeavor to serve everyone. That’s what really the gist of this is all about.”

However, he added that when changes happen, “sometimes they phase things in and the purpose of doing that is to collect data.”

Tom Adams would add, “What I really was concerned about with the proposal is going up to 98 – for the simple reason that as one of our commentators said, there’s this issue of equity if the previous year it was 96 and now you’re going to raise it to 98 without the hope, then I have to be concerned about that. What’s the alternative and maybe you can come back and explain to me about how some of those concerns about equity are being addressed.”

While there was some initial confusion about the time-line for the 98% phase in over three years, it appears that the students taking the test this year, 2015-16, will keep the qualification score at 96%. Those will be the students entering AIM for the following school year. Then in 2016-17, they will have to achieve 97% to qualify and finally, in 2017-18, they will need to achieve 98% to qualify.

For me this is critical, because it allows the district a chance to evaluate the current changes to the program – that means the end of private testing, the implementation of the risk factors with their associated tests, and an evaluation of the pilot program of the HOPE scale.

This will allow the district and school board to come back sometime next year and look at what the AIM program looks like before changing the qualification cut offs. It will also give the district time to further implement their district-wide differentiated instruction program.

All of this is good because the district will have some actual data to evaluate before pushing in additional changes to the program.

There is of course some downside to this approach. It is not going to resolve the issue of AIM identification and size of the program. In fact, it pushes off the potential contentious battle of narrowing the program to next year – an election year.

In November of 2016 Susan Lovenburg will be seeking potentially her third term on the school board. As one of the strongest critics of the current program, we might anticipate a fierce battle. Alan Fernandes, remember, was just elected last year, to fill the remainder of Nancy Peterson’s seat, so he could be running for his first full term after serving about two and a half years. He’s been a moderate on this issue, but once one of the four, supporting the June 4 motion.

At the same time, this proposal is probably the closest we can get to consensus at this time. It allows for the district to evaluate the series of changes it made, other than the qualification score, which should allow the district to adjust to problems on the fly.

For those fearing that this proposal will mark the end of self-contained GATE in DJUSD – the current trajectory seems to argue against that. However, the battle in the next two years will be over figuring out how large a program it should be.

—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. SODA

    To me a critical point is what the district and teachers will ‘do’ with the data about the 95, 96, 97% students as the cut off rises.  Will they know and ‘differentiate’ for the high scoring but not GATE/AIM students?  Have we heard anything about that?  I am glad there will still be self contained classrooms.


  2. hpierce

    To be clear, I support self-contained classes for several subject areas, but being self-contained all-day/every-day is not helpful (nor ‘healthy’) in truly developing students, particularly those who truly ‘need’ GATE/AIM.  All students need to learn how to function with a wide variety of people, of various abilities, backgrounds, etc.  It’s called ‘life’ and we should be as focussed on THAT as we are to getting them into the best colleges.  Actually, MORE so.

  3. Anon

    What a load of horse manure (sorry, but egads!).  All the school board did here was try and mollify its critics – without changing course at all.  They refuse to answer the central question: Why is size being used to define the program?  What is the rational justification for such a move?

    1. David Greenwald

      You raise a good point – and as I wrote, I remain troubled by the lack of justification for the move. But the difference is by phasing it in, we have data that we can assess along the way that will allow for potential course corrections. Unfortunately it also means that the next election will be a stomping ground for the new policy, which is not the best thing for the district overall.

        1. wdf1

          Anon:  You are making a huge assumption there will be any “course correction”.  I cry foul!  I don’t believe it for a second.

          This topic (GATE/AIM) has been the subject of vigorous vocal discussion for decades, going back and forth, trying to establish clarity on what GATE/AIM is, fairness on how one is identified for the program, and what kind of program best serves students overall.  If the administration got it right and most agree, then there won’t be any course correction.  If a major part of the constituency feels otherwise, then there most certainly will be some kind of course correction of one sort or another.

          1. Matt Williams

            wdf, I agree with what you have said in large part. For me the way to get it right is to stop trying to have one program address two distinctly different needs within the community.

            There is a clearly articulated need for an advanced placement program, leading up to and including the taking of Advanced Placement examinations with inclusion of those examination results in individual students’ college applications.

            There is a clearly articulated need for addressing those children who are gifted and talented, but disconnected/alienated/underperforming in the main stream DJUSD classrooms

            How does one program with threshold selection methodology effectively and efficiently and simultaneously address both those very different needs?

      1. ryankelly

        David, with the phase in of the change to the District’s GATE program, it just extends the politics around GATE for 6 years. If the changes were all done in one year, the there would only be one generation of students who experienced the would-a-could-a-should-a of changing eligibility for the self-contained classes.  The District is going to be heavily lobbied by parents to retest their children who don’t qualify, teachers will be lobbied by parents to fill out the HOPE surveys, etc.  I expect campaigns that appeal to these anxious parents.  It has the same feel that the Republican party has fallen into.  I believe that people like Poulos and Sallee and others are doing our community a great disservice with their meddling.  We should expect lawsuits, referendums and one issue candidates because that is what Davis has become.

        1. ryankelly

          That’s just not true. The call for change started by people who were negatively affected and didn’t like how the tracking of students was affecting the District’s school environment. The main opposition to change is coming from people who will not be affected by that change, including bringing GATE children to comment at Board meetings, who ignore the severe flaws in identification, the effects on school climate, and the achievement gap.

          I will not support a candidate who campaigns primarily on reeling back changes to GATE self-contained classes.  Feels too much like Republican threats to abolish Obamacare.

          1. Don Shor

            The call for change started by people who were negatively affected and didn’t like how the tracking of students was affecting the District’s school environment.

            The “call for change” has been coming from people who oppose GATE in principle and in practice. The effect those people are having on the school environment is adverse, for sure: calling GATE elitist, using terms like segregation and ‘Tiger Moms’, and implying that GATE is adversely affecting the achievement gap. The opponents of GATE are creating a hostile atmosphere at this point. Given the things they’re saying, it’s hard to imagine their attitudes aren’t being reflected among their children.

            And now we have the ultimate canard: comparing it to Republicans and Obamacare. Good one. You’ve outdone yourself with this one.

            GATE is a popular and successful program. The district didn’t ‘have to’ change a thing. If they wanted to improve the program, they couldn’t have done a worse job of it. There are any number of things they could have done to improve the education of high-achieving gifted kids and lower-achieving gifted kids. They aren’t doing that. The only apparent goal is to make the program smaller.

        2. Napoleon Pig IV

          Don is correct. His short and clear statement is an accurate account of the actual history of this debate. To argue otherwise is to engage in misleading propaganda.

        3. ryankelly

          Don, The average score on the OLSAT for kids in AIM has been in the 80th percentiles. The identification process has been manipulated.  It is a tracking system with children divided at 4th grade.  There is a need for GATE education, but not for such a large portion of the kids in Davis.  It is time for change.

        4. DavisAnon

          Ryankelly, seriously? You pick on someone for being concerned enough about an issue to show up to a meeting even when they can’t get a babysitter? For years I have found it ludicrous that parents have to try to find babysitters in order to show up and listen/speak as the meetings are only in the evenings (on school nights, no less), let alone pay for babysitters for hours on end as the meetings run so long. What are single parents or parents with a spouse working then or travelling supposed to do if they want to be involved?? How is your comment encouraging parent participation in the schools (as I thought was supposed to happen with LCAP)? Some kids ask to go and see what those meetings are like. I don’t think it’s a bad way to expose them to the democratic process, and I have seen some kids get very excited about politics and civic involvement as a result of going to school board meetings. Should they not be there or allowed to speak if their parent is ok with it?

        5. ryankelly

          Davisanon- i was referring to the parents who brought their students already in GATE to actually comment, not the parents who brought their children along with them.  The kids who commented were already in GATE and would not be affected by the change.

  4. Tia Will

     we have data that we can assess along the way that will allow for potential course corrections.”

    I think that this is the critical piece. I know that GATE/AIM is a highly emotional topic since it involves the perceived well being of children, both those who have thrived in the program, those who have been excluded from the program, and those who support individualized instruction for all and feel that this program is not supportive of that goal.

    However, as I have stated previously, it seems like there is far too much reliance on anecdotal reporting of the benefits to individual children by parents who are passionate about how it helped their child, and far too many generalities being spoken by those who want changes.

    It is my hope that having comparative data over time will lead to a more reasoned approach on how to proceed.


    1. Anon

      Yes, and how reliable is any “data” going to be?  It is going to be a foregone conclusion that the DJUSD was correct in making its recommendation to shrink the AIM program.  You think they are going to concede they were wrong, based on data they themselves collected?  Give me a break!

    2. Napoleon Pig IV

      “It is my hope that having comparative data over time will lead to a more reasoned approach on how to proceed.”

      Tia, your hope is laudable, but there is no basis evident in recent statements and actions of Roberson or a majority of his board to suggest that data of any kind are likely to be influential in their further statements and actions.

      To put it more simply, they have consistently ignored objective, peer-reviewed, academic studies and data  and are likely to continue to do so. They want to ultimately kill the AIM program, and this “compromise” situation is merely a minor setback on their road to doing so.

      The only hope for the program, and for high quality public education in general in Davis, is to make substantive changes in both the board and the district administration.

  5. iWitness

    Of course we have already seen what happens to “the data” when filtered through an anti-AIM position and used to support whatever the administrators and trustees — two words that apply only loosely to most of them at this point — want the data to support.  We’ve seen our schools and our schoolchildren mined for “data”  to enhance the publication records with a publication politically acceptable at an Ed School that never has won any repute for openness to GATE education as opposed to the university across the Causeway where GATE education has always been taught.   It’s known you don’t go there to become a guru in the reputable gifted and talented world.  The Board will continue to use studies with data  from districts not at all similar to Davis to support their opinions, while skipping studies from districts similar to Davis that do not.

    Why should we be putting our hopes into “the data” that will be analyzed and presented just as the previous information has been presented, by carefully avoiding the much wider scholarship that opposes the Board’s prejudices.  The results will be examined hastily and presented again during the dog days of summer, with a heavy thumb on the scales.  Waving the future data at AIM still doesn’t meet the criticism that AIM supporters make, that people are leading the District with their prejudices and an aversion to the presumed slights of mouthy eight-year-olds.

    I get no comfort from HOPE-ing that “the data” from this year will be used to any better purpose than “the data” was used last year.

    1. ryankelly

      I guess that successful threading of the needle didn’t happen.

      I suppose that we’ll be hearing about this for the next 6-10 years…three election cycles, including school parcel tax votes.

        1. hpierce

          A bit cynical Don, and might be correct, but you have never responded favorably to folk like me who did not initiate, but strongly feel re-formation should be looked at, for good reason.  I am a strong supporter of GATE/AIM, but strongly feel the status quo implementation is wrong. There are real issues.  I feel I can be objective as a product of a G&T program, and having a child in the Davis version ~ 20 years ago.

          I fully expect you will find a way to belittle/dismiss this, as on this topic you have often shown an “all or nothing” view.  In my opinion that is not particularly helpful to the discussion, nor student outcomes.

          1. Don Shor

            We’ve actually discussed ways that the program could have been re-formed, with parent buy-in and a phased process of clear differentiation. Cluster-grouping, specific gifted differentiation training, etc. I’ve posted about the San Diego model which uses self-contained GATE for some (what they call seminar) and cluster-grouping of a larger number of gifted-identified students in regular classrooms.
            That isn’t being done here.

          1. Don Shor

            Don’t remember when I posted this, but I saved it:
            Keep the 96% test threshold for OLSAT qualification, perhaps with the intent to increase it to 98% in 2 – 3 years.
            Establish the AIM Committee.
            Pilot the HOPE screening.
            Adopt the screening and re-test procedures for risk factors.
            Implement a referral process for teachers and parents, and an appeals process for parents.
            Establish true cluster-grouping for differentiated GATE at neighborhood schools. Offer that option to all students who are gifted-identified.
            Develop and implement gifted differentiation training for teachers who will have cluster-grouped gifted students in their classrooms.
            Expand seats available for self-contained GATE to meet demand if necessary. Abolish the lottery.

        2. hpierce

          I definitely missed that summary (9:04 post)… am about 90% in concurrence.  And see no ‘fatal flaws’, but can see where future ‘tweaking’ might be the right thing to do.  Resolves pretty much the majority of my issues with the current ‘system’.


  6. Tia Will

    I fully understand that data can be used to bolster or detract from almost any position that one holds. What gives me some additional hope is that using our own data over time could detract from the pernicious effects of ignoring data from some other districts while citing that of others by either side.

  7. MrsW

    Sunday Commentary: Did the Superintendent Successfully Thread the Needle on AIM?

    I don’t know.  The Vanguard, its commenters, the School Board, and the Administration have defined AIM’s major issue as the admissions criteria.  I think the major issue is what happens after that.  How the program is administrated.  What is done to foster cultural understanding between students?  How do AIM students admitted based on non-verbal tests fare in class? do they stick with the program for all six plus years? graduate from high school? But that’s for another day.

  8. hpierce

    BTW, just because some teacher takes “training” in GATE/AIM, doesn’t mean they are “qualified” to teach GATE/AIM.  There is at least one vocal proponent who taught GATE who may have got the training (or used inside politics to get assigned) but was unfit/ineffective for that endeavor.

    The training/validation process for GATE/AIM teachers is the next issue we should examine.  In my experience, “it takes one to teach one”, and there is a huge difference between 20 years of experience, and one year of experience twenty times..

    Actually the above applies to all teachers, all professionals.

    1. Tia Will


      there is a huge difference between 20 years of experience, and one year of experience twenty times..”

      I find that in medicine ( which is obviously different from classroom teaching in many respects) there is an optimal balance to be achieved. The experienced professional has the depth of experience with many different situations and has institutional memory regarding what approaches have been successful and which have not, but may be more set in their ways, both good and bad. The new professional  will have the benefit of exposure to more recent study and supervised experiences with more intensive feedback on their performance while having the disadvantage of less depth of experience.


  9. Tia Will


    Given the things they’re saying, it’s hard to imagine their attitudes aren’t being reflected among their children.”

    In the interest of fairness, this passing of less than desirable attitudes from parents to kids has been going both directions for a long, long time. My daughter, now 26 was taunted by the neighbor children who considered themselves better and smarter than her because they were in GATE and she wasn’t. This is not a one directional street and GATE has at times, and in some families clearly had an elitist tone.

    That of course does not mean that we should set policy based on anecdotal input.

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