There is little doubt of the immediate outcome of tonight’s discussion on GATE/AIM. Those who wish to change the program have the votes to do so if they choose. That was clear when the board voted 4-1 on June 4 to bring this issue back in September and it remains just as clear today.
At one point, there was the notion that perhaps there was a way forward that could be the compromise that the defenders of the current program and those who wanted to change it would want to accept. That doesn’t seem possible at this point in time.
The reality is that the issue comes down to one of the recommendations – the threshold for qualification. The current proposal seeks to increase the qualification threshold from 96 percent to 98 percent.
But the threshold is really a proxy issue for the size of the program. As the Enterprise editorial put it, by increasing the threshold to 98 percent, “school district administrators and trustees are trying to get their arms around this program and pull it back to a manageable size.”
There are problems with this approach. While the Enterprise jumped on board the notion that the program was “initially designed only for students who had significant trouble learning in a regular classroom,” our analysis yesterday found no such language. The master plans that we analyzed showed that the program was always intended for both high intellectual ability and high achievers.
Going back 20 years, there is no evidence that GATE/AIM was meant strictly for students “who had significant trouble learning in a regular classroom.” Moreover, as Superintendent Winfred Roberson acknowledged in September, “There is no easy way to distinguish between high achieving students and those who are intellectually gifted.”
And so the assessment tools that are being put into place do not attempt to differentiate.
Is there an educationally-based reason to reduce the size of the program? As we have noted, the Superintendent in researching for his report found “that the qualification score ranges from 90-99 percentile in GATE programs throughout California.”
He continued, “The current DJUSD qualification score for AIM-identification is the 96 percentile. Raising or lowering the qualification score will have a direct effect on the projected number of students who qualify.”
He added, “Analysis from relevant research as well as conversations with GATE teachers, principals and community input has led the administration to select a qualification score that is meant to best serve the DJUSD student population.”
That is the extent of the public rationale provided. There is no showing that the program has grown to unmanageable size. In fact, the data from Scott Carrell and his colleagues shows that the size of the program has remained fairly constant, going back at least a decade.
To stress this point – there has been no stated educational reason to reduce the size of the program.
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 timeline for the 98 percent phase-in over three years, it appears that the students taking the test this year, 2015-16, will keep the qualification score at 96 percent. Those will be the students entering AIM for the following school year. Then in 2016-17, they will have to achieve 97 percent to qualify and finally, in 2017-18, they will need to achieve 98 percent to qualify.
Where the Vanguard likely parts ways with the harder core supporters of the current program is in recognizing that the proposal with the phased-in qualification score change is probably the best compromise that supporters of the program can get.
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.
But the reality is that the extra year also does something for supporters of the current program – it allows them to get their candidates on the ballot for November 2016, it allows for them to run a campaign on the issue of the GATE/AIM program and it allows the community largely to weigh in on their vision for the program before any permanent change is made to the qualification score.
In a way, this compromise does the exact opposite of what the Vanguard had hoped for, following the June decisions heading into the fall. Instead of putting the GATE/AIM issue to rest through a compromise everyone could live with, it turns the issue into the paramount issue going into the fall 2016 election – the litmus test, if you will, that may well further divide the community.
As our analysis shows, not only is this issue likely to be polarizing, but it may well threaten the parcel tax. The numbers supporting the parcel tax remain perilous at best and our recent analysis of the district’s finances shows no easy way for the district to back off local monies as a way to prop up its program.
At this point, I don’t see another way forward. Maybe there was never a road that was acceptable to all sides. It is clear that the school board majority has the votes to approve the Superintendent’s recommendations – the question then becomes how pitched the battle will be next fall for control of the school board.
—David M. Greenwald reporting