Beginning in the spring of 2015 and ending in the fall, AIM became one of the most contentious issues in the school district, and for good reason. While it seems most people supported the end of private testing, changing the cutoff mark would prove contentious, while changing the identification scheme would prove difficult.
While the district and school board have thus far avoided the more fundamental existential questions about the program, the rhetoric from last week suggests those are not far off.
As an observer to this process, I found it interesting the extent to which these changes are in two ways now being used against the program itself – as both the superintendent and the board president complained about the expenditure of time while the superintendent also used the racial breakdown as a reason to question the program.
The superintendent, in his lengthy remarks, noted that last summer as he arrived “staff time was dominated by the effort needed to respond to an inquiry from the Office for Civil Rights about our AIM program.” Senior staff, he said, “had lost the month.”
He continued, “From what I understand, this was the second summer AIM was a central issue for the district office. In the summer of 2015, cabinet staff spent that whole summer engaged in the research and preparation of a report on the AIM program.
“What does this tell me?” he asked. “Over recent years, an issue that is not a central feature of a Board Goal, a Strategic Goal or a Local Control Accountability Plan goal has encumbered an inordinate amount of time and resources at the expense of our stated objectives – most importantly our work on the Achievement Gap. We have a number of other programs in the District, but no others garner the intense focus and attention of so many Board members, staff and parents.”
Likewise, Board President Barbara Archer pointed out this is the board’s eighth meeting in three years on AIM. She said, “I am concerned about the resources – it takes up a lot of staff time.”
She noted that when Dr. Bowes came to DJUSD, he wanted to focus on his leadership team, but instead dealt with the OCR (Office for Civil Rights) complaint. The previous summer, staff wanted to have a vacation after working hard all year, but they focused all their time on the AIM program.
“When we say why this program,” she said, it’s “because it tends to eat up a lot of resources.” She noted hundreds of hours of staff time, plus testing time. “Folks say this doesn’t cost any money, actually… I believe it’s $160,000 a year… so there is a cost. That is something we should be thinking about, we should be transparent about, when we’re looking at a structural deficit.”
While there are important points about the utilization of board and district staff time, one reason that this has caused so much time to be expended is that the district has made major changes to the program – changes that are controversial.
The superintendent claims in his meeting with 100 people, “The clear, consensus opinion is that our current model separating some AIM-identified students in self-contained classrooms does not best serve the students of this District.” The reality is that those eight meetings – of which Mr. Bowes has been part of one – has shown that there is anything but consensus in this community about what the program should be or how many students should be participating.
It seems a bit disingenuous to back major changes to the program and then complain that the program is consuming a great deal of staff time.
The second self-fulfilling prophecy is the complaint about the lack of ethnic diversity. Put simply, the program was far more ethnically diverse in its previous iteration than it is now.
The superintendent notes, “While our current AIM program serves some of our students well, it does not identify or support all students well. Recent years have shown us that the AIM program, in its current manifestation, has not contributed to this ideal of inclusion to the extent that it can.”
The superintendent continues, “Third, looking at ethnic diversity—I can report on the following results with regard to students scoring at the 98th percentile for AIM-identification: White and Asian students are well and almost exclusively represented while African American, Hispanic, Native American and Pacific Islander students are not. Even if we review the data at the 96th percentile, we would see a similar divide reflected.”
This is a serious concern – one that the Vanguard raised at the time when the changes were made. Part of the problem was that the use of the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test was never going to work. The district really should have known that the Naglieri, the key re-testing measure for at-risk kids, was not going to yield the kind of diverse results we would all like to see.
New York, for example, as captured in a New York Times article, tried to use the Naglieri but found quickly it didn’t identify more children of color for their gifted program.
In short, as we pointed out at the time of implementation, the Naglieri was the wrong measure and therefore we should not be surprised it has failed here.
On the other hand, the HOPE Scale has been shown to work, however, as the Superintendent noted, while the HOPE Scale attempts to locate gifted students from underrepresented populations, “[i]n Davis, however, the HOPE Scale pilot assessment did not, in either the first or second year it has been piloted, do any better than standardized tests in identifying giftedness in underserved populations.”
John Bowes noted that data from two years of using nationally normed testing “do very well at identifying white and Asian students. They are not identifying African American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander and Native American students in sufficient numbers through either our universal testing or re-testing assessments.”
A lot of this was predictable. The district opted to switch from the TONI (Test of Nonverbal Intelligence) to the Naglieri to identify low-income and at-risk students, even though the Naglieri has not been shown to work in this regard and the TONI has been falsely portrayed as being a test only for people with speech problems or for English learners.
The TONI not only is helpful for those who are English learners, but also for all low SES (socioeconomic status) students – particularly those who did not go to preschool, those from disadvantaged backgrounds who might not have the verbal skills to succeed on the heavily-verbal OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School Ability Test).
“When you come from a low socio-economic background and you’re not necessarily going to have all of the those enrichment opportunities around language, and it’s precisely those kids who we think are at a disadvantage on the (OLSAT), there’s a lot of language that’s required to do that test,” Madhavi Sunder explained back in 2015.
If shrinking the AIM program was going to produce a less diverse program, and if diversity is one of your goals – you want to identify more black and Latino students for the program, then it seems logical that you have to cast a wider rather than a narrower net and you have to use tests or practices that are going to help identify those students.
Barbara Archer last week argued, “The reason we are so stuck on this issue is that we have focused so much on identification and not enough on delivery of the program.”
While that is true, the problem at this point is that they still have not figured out the identification side of the equation.
Karen Hamilton raised the point, “The self-contained program is now functioning as an elitist perk.”
Part of the problem is that the district has intentionally decreased the size of the program from four strands to 1.5 strands. It has clearly been miscast as an elitist program when the name suggests it should be viewed simply as an Alternative Instructional Model.
From my standpoint, most of this was predictable – and, indeed, predicted two years ago – and the current complaints are really about self-inflicted wounds.
—David M. Greenwald reporting