One of the big debates that occurred on Thursday night at the school board meeting is the extent to which the AIM changes can be considered a failure.
In the course of her discussion, some of which her colleagues challenged as off-topic, Board President Madhavi Sunder suggested, “I do not feel that our identification process is complete yet. I believe that there are students that we have not given fair opportunity to see whether or not they actually have gifted potential.”
This is a critical point, especially in a program that has greatly reduced the number of black and Hispanic qualified students.
But Madhavi Sunder raised the ire of some of her colleagues when she suggested that the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test and other new tests they used have “failed.”
Ms. Sunder added that we need to make sure we are giving fair access to English Language Learners, low income students, learning disabled students, and racial minorities, “that we know are often unfairly disadvantaged on the OLSAT [Otis-Lennon School Ability Test].” She said they retested these groups “and we failed to identify almost any.”
But there was push-back here. Susan Lovenburg stated, “I don’t agree that the process that the board put in place is a failure. It functioned as it was intended to and if not, we need to make changes going forward.”
Ms. Archer would later add, “I do agree with President Sunder that we have to address this year, but I really object to calling our program a failure when you don’t know the percentages of third graders in the different minority groups.”
Alan Fernandes said he “wouldn’t call it a failure,” but “I would also not say it’s a total success.”
But Madhavi Sunder offered critical statistics that suggested that the use of the Naglieri was inappropriate.
She stated that “we (have) three percent African American in this district and the number that is identified is zero percent.”
She pointed out that there was only a three percent success rate on the Naglieri and a 32 percent success rate for the CogAT (Cognitive Abilities Test).
“That was the test (CogAT) that we gave to more advantaged students,” she argued. “What upsets me is that we gave the disadvantaged students a much harder to succeed on test.” In the past, they were given the TONI (Test of Nonverbal Intelligence) which had a 14.6 percent success rate. “We didn’t give the TONI to a single low income student this year.”
Under the new guidelines, for students with risk factors related to language or culture, the TONI may be administered. For students with economic risk factors, the Naglieri may be administered. On the other hand, the CogAT is administered for those who scored in the standard error of measure on the OLSAT.
But does this make sense? In the fall of 2012, the New York City School District overhauled their gifted program, announcing that “the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, also known as the NNAT, will count for two-thirds of a student’s score.” A year later they altered that to 50-50, NNAT and OLSAT.
The problem that NYC was trying to fix is the same problem we face – the over-representation of white and Asian students in gifted programs with the underrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics.
Writes Slate in an article this year, “In New York City elementary schools, according to a local newspaper, G&T programs are approximately 70 percent white and Asian while the public school population is 70 percent black and Hispanic. In 2012, New York revamped the test, partially in an effort to make it more inclusive, but so far enrollment statistics have hardly budged.”
In other words, the Naglieri failed to change the demographic distribution of students identified for gifted classes in New York. So why would we expect this to be the appropriate test in Davis? That Slate article came out in September 2015, before the board voted on final approvals.
When Madhavi Sunder jumped in with the suggestion we go back to the TONI, which had a 14.6 percent success rate as opposed to the 3 percent for the Naglieri, Tom Adams was quick to jump in.
Tom Adams stated, “The use of the TONI before was not appropriate – it’s a test intended for English Learners (and) we were using it as a second test for a lot of groups for whom it’s really not intended.”
But, despite Mr. Adams credentials on educational research, his assessment does not square with the literature.
A 2011 review notes, “The TONI-4 has several strengths. It decreases cultural and language factors that often influence verbal-based intelligence tests.”
The issue here is that for many low-SES (socioeconomic status) and especially students who are either English-Learners or children of English learners, there are language issues that may block the accurate assessment of their cognitive abilities.
As Madhavi Sunder pointed out in her response, the company that develops and distributes the TONI-4 notes that it is “[d]esigned for both children and adults, the language-free format makes it ideal for testing those who have previously been difficult to assess, including people with communication disorders, learning disabilities, or problems caused by intellectual disability, autism, stroke, head injury, neuropsychological impairment, or disease.”
But they add, “It also accommodates the needs of individuals who are not proficient in English.”
And that is not just English learners, that can be disadvantaged populations whose verbal skills lag behind those of their cohorts.
In other words, Mr. Adams is completely wrong that the TONI was an inappropriate test, though he may have been correct in questioning the process in which it was used.
In conclusion here, while I might stop short of using the term “fail” in a past tense, done deal, sort of manner, I would agree that the test is failing to identify blacks and Hispanics – and likely other people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I would also argue that, with more careful research, the district could have and should have avoided using the Naglieri, as there is no evidence that it has worked as the district attempted to utilize it.
Finally, given the concerns about getting the testing right, the district should delay implementing the 98th percentile threshold until they have fixed the identification process. Pushing forward at this point would be a strong signal that the skeptics and critics are correct – this is simply a way to pare down the program until it is either a single strand, or the self-contained program disappears altogether.
—David M. Greenwald reporting