Vanguard Commentary: What a Vote to Approve AIM Changes Means for DJUSD



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

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. wdf1

    Vanguard:  To stress this point – there has been no stated educational reason to reduce the size of the program.

    How about for other scenarios.  Any clearly defined reason that the program should be at its current size? or bigger?  make it available to all students in the district?

    1. Davis Progressive

      seems to me that the status quo holds unless there is a specific reason to change it.  so the question really comes down to – are those who go through the program getting value.  we have the anecdotal information that says yes, but the study from the ucd folks who argue no.  that said, if the district thinks the program should shrink, they should say why

  2. Don Shor

    It will also give the district time to further implement their district-wide differentiated instruction program.

    Differentiation is a philosophy, not a program.

  3. Napoleon Pig IV

    Arbitrarily reducing the size of the program for no educational reason, and in the midst of the board and administration’s smoke and mirrors campaign, is the moral equivalent of the old “separate but equal” approach to public education.

    It is the moral equivalent because it is discriminatory, and it is the pragmatic equivalent because some
    AIM-identified students will be in self-contained classrooms and many others will be forced, not by choice, to forgo the most effective approach to their education while the district pretends that “differentiation” is “equal” in effectiveness to an actual AIM program.

    It’s really a shame the Vanguard doesn’t have as many regular readers as the local fish wrap. If it did, perhaps the sheep would break out of their sylvan pastures, where the babbling brook must be spiked with sedatives, and rise up to overturn the swine trough. Oink!

  4. ryankelly

    If students don’t make the cut off, they may be bright, but they won’t be AIM-identified.  This is not discriminatory.  It is defining what gifted means in the Davis Joint Unified School District.  Gifted used to mean that the student was far above their peers.  It was corrupted to mean 30% of the students in the District.   Many students in this band of ability have been placed in the normal classroom, either by choice or default after missing the lottery, and have been successfully educated.  Differentiation is not exactly the same as GATE education, but it will serve the non-gifted, high-achieving student well – maybe better.  Maybe the student will have time to explore more deeply areas or activities of interest, now that they aren’t scrambling to keep up with areas that they don’t excel.   True gifted students will be better served and not pushed out by the demands of high achieving students and their parents.

    AIM parents have no one else to blame than themselves.  If they hadn’t participated in corrupting the identification process, demanded an expansion of GATE classrooms at neighborhood schools, etc. then we wouldn’t be here.

    1. Napoleon Pig IV

      ryankelly, your claim that the identification process is “corrupted” is ludicrous and not backed by evidence. You are simply parroting the propaganda of those who wish to systematically discriminate against this subset of the population. The AIM program is not 30% of the students. The actual percentage is closer to 19 or 20. Your attempt to place parents for school board deception and incompetence is laughable.

      1. ryankelly

        Did you not read the research reports that were done?

        AIM identification has identified 30% of Davis students, with 20% going into self-contained classes.  This last 10% is not in self-contained classes either by choice or not selected through the lottery?

        The average OLSAT score for students admitted into the self-contained classes is in the 80th percentile.  Many of these students were re-tested through private testing which did not require the identification of a risk factor that would warrant re-testing, appropriateness of the test, etc.  Students were tested annually and privately, some starting at age 5, even before the OLSAT was taken at 3rd grade to ensure acceptance into GATE classes.  Others were retested by the District Gate Coordinator using a test that was, in many cases, not appropriate for the risk factors identified.  Most of the students who received this retesting scored in the 99th percentile.   This was revealed when researchers looked at our identification and admission process.  This deception was not done by the School Board, other than previous Boards turning a blind eye to the manipulation and corruption of the process.

        That is the evidence.  It is not a ludicrous statement.  This is the evidence that has prompted the change.


        1. DavisAnon

          Don’t know where you got your statistics. I’ve seen nothing anywhere saying any child took a test annually since before kindergarten. I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened, as it falls within accepted testing guidelines. Please tell me where I can find that information.

        2. Davis Progressive

          what i find curious is we keep hearing about all these people who retested through private testing but have had no statistics about how many did this, how many retests they took.  we know that a certain percentage qualified through private testing, but don’t know what that group looks like.

        3. ryankelly

          The historic data is no longer on the website, but the District informed parents that private testing results would not be accepted until after the student took the OLSAT test in 3rd grade and they had the results back and that students would not be recognized by the District as gifted in K-3 grades from private testing.   Then there was the anecdotal testimony of parents whose children were identified at age 4 and 5, who were upset that private testing would no longer be accepted.

        4. DavisAnon

          So how does that imply people are testing their kids privately for more than four years straight? And how many people do you actually think would be doing this with a child in public school? To limit access to a program by half for the possibility of a small number of bad apples seems ridiculously heavy-handed and does nothing to improve education for Davis children. Why not just deal with that specific issue if there’s a problem?  Now they are cutting the program by at least half and are limiting testing so much that they are telling people to fly back from overseas in order to have their child tested on the appropriate day or they will have no other option for testing or eligibility in the program.

        5. ryankelly

          To control the number and frequency of testing attempts, the District required that the parents fill out a form prior to having their children tested privately, stating who would be doing the testing.  The District limited the testing and retesting to one attempt per year. Any test done without this form filed prior to the test was not accepted.  So the District knows how many children were being tested over and over each year.

          1. Don Shor

            the District knows how many children were being tested over and over each year.

            But you don’t.

        6. ryankelly

          DavisAnon,   If the family believes that their child is truly gifted (well above their peers), an outlier in terms of intellect and needs to be in a self-contained GATE classroom for 4th grade, parents will see that it is important enough to make arrangements for their child to be available to be tested. If their child is merely bright and high-achieving and doing well in a normal classroom, waiting to be tested won’t hurt.   People need to abandon their idea that AIM is an AP/Honors elementary school program.

  5. Anon

    The way forward should be to correct the identifying process, where the problem was, and leave the 96% qualification cut-off in place, since there is no educational justification for changing it.  Very simple solution.

    1. wdf1

      Anon:  ….leave the 96% qualification cut-off in place, since there is no educational justification for changing it.

      I will accept that there seems to be little justification for changing it, but is there educational justification for having it at 96%?  What about 90%?  some districts have 90% cut-off.  Is there justification for having it at 80%?  50%?  etc.

      I think if there were a solid justification for keeping at 96%, then you would be on solid ground.  I sense that it’s all arbitrary, and that’s why this issue is even being discussed.

  6. hpierce

    I love “the new math” apparently being used.  At first blush, it would appear that a 96% threshold means that 4% of the students would be included in AIM/GATE based on testing alone (other factors would presumably increase that).  Assuming 96% = 96th percentile of DJUSD students tested..

    Yet, we have Ryan & NP4 arguing whether the eligible numbers under the current system results in 19-20% identified, or up to 30%.  Something “smells”.  If it’s 96th percentile, then 4-5% percent would be identified by the testing criteria.

    Not sure whether the 96% number is ‘normalized’, and if so how.  Am thinking, perhaps we should have someone (who KNOWS, not interested in theories nor speculation) explain what “96%” means currently.

    Until I see such facts, and their documentation, I am really skeptical of NP4’s position, and the whole testing/identification protocol.  Something smells, and don’t think it’s roses.

    1. Don Shor

      Assuming 96% = 96th percentile of DJUSD students tested..

      That’s not what it means. The 96% refers to their score on the test. It doesn’t mean the 4% would get in. A high percentage of Davis students — evidently about 30% — scores high on the test and qualifies for GATE. Some of them don’t enroll in GATE, instead staying in their neighborhood schools. So I gather the actual percentage in GATE is 18 – 20%.
      In other school districts, a lower percentage scores high on the test.

      1. hpierce

        Ok, now you have answered one part of my questions… what it is NOT.  Still unanswered… is 96% an absolute number, or is it “normalized” based on highest individual score?  Other?

        Documentation on DJUSD, elsewhere?

        There were two aspects of my questions still unanswered.  Not even responded to.

        1. ryankelly

          I believe it is a percentage band.  A student scoring 95% would have to answer a handful of questions wrong to drop out of 96%.  So it is not just one question away from 96%.

          I looked at this and there was a website that explained it.

        2. DavisAnon

          The OLSAT is normed nationally (Canada’s norms are different). Students are compared by age, not grade level. The tests are not graded in district but are sent out of the state (to the testing company I think) for scoring. The score given is a percentile. Therefore there is no 100.

  7. ryankelly

    Here is information regarding the OLSAT scoring:

    Interesting – this is from an OLSAT Test Prep site, which acknowledges that competition for GATE programs is high, so encourages students to practice and prepare for the test.   I am assuming that, as the overall test scores rise due to preparation, the number of correct questions answered to achieve the 97% or higher score (the level that this site indicates is the qualifying score) will also rise.

  8. Misanthrop

     “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.”

    This is a lie. The qualification score was selected to meet the June 4 directive of the board majority and nothing else.

      1. hpierce

        The amendment is appropriate, but should have been in the staff recommendation.  Any contentious change (incl. Fifth Street road diet, as an example) should automatically be reviewed after the change has had a fair chance to be evaluated.  May lead to affirmation, change of course, or minor “tweaking”.

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