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How are Georgia's brightest students doing? 'Only OK.'

Sally Krisel is the director of Innovative and Advanced Programs in the Hall County School System and president-elect of the National Association for Gifted Children. Jonathan Plucker is Raymond Neag Endowed Professor of Education at the University of Connecticut.

By Sally Krisel and Jonathan Plucker

Education is widely accepted as a key driver of economic growth and quality of life, and Georgia is not an exception. Indeed, Georgia’s policymakers and educators deserve credit for a series of innovations in public education, ranging from early childhood programs to HOPE Scholarships, and continuing to this day with Gov. Deal’s Education Reform Commission.

But Georgia often overlooks one indicator of education that may be critical for our future prosperity: The number of students who perform at the highest levels. How are our brightest groups of students doing?

The answer is “only OK,” according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the widely respected national testing program. On the most recent NAEP assessments, 5% of Georgia Grade 4 students (vs. 7% nationally) and 7% of Grade 8 students (8% nationally) scored advanced on the mathematics tests. In reading, 7% of Grade 4 students (8% nationally) and 3% of Grade 8 students scored advanced (3% nationally).

What would happen if we increased these percentages to 10%? In Grade 8, an increase to 10% advanced in mathematics would represent an additional 4,000 eighth graders exhibiting academic excellence each year.

We can certainly get more Georgia students scoring at the highest levels, but an even bigger concern is the size of our excellence gaps. These gaps are similar to achievement gaps, in that they provide an estimate of how different groups of students are performing academically. But excellence gaps focus on the highest achievement levels.

For example, although 7% of Grade 8 students performed at the advanced level in math, this performance was due mostly to that of economically advantaged students: 15% of students not eligible for lunch assistance scored advanced vs. only 2% who were eligible.

Couple those results with those by race (White students 11%, Hispanic 3%, Black 2%), and the size of Georgia’s excellence gap problems becomes obvious – especially since over half of Georgia students are Black and Hispanic, and 60% have family incomes qualifying them for lunch assistance in schools.

Shrinking these gaps would, again, result in a huge influx of talent. Taking the socioeconomic gap mentioned above, even partially closing the Grade 8 Math excellence gap from 13% to 9% would result in more than 3,000 additional low-income students performing at high levels in math each year as they head into high school. That’s 3,000 students, 3,000 families, and hundreds of communities that would be transformed as these students capitalized on their talents.

How can we raise more students to excellence and close excellence gaps in Georgia? We already have several strong initiatives underway here in Georgia:

Cobb County School District has developed an array of Talent Development (TD) delivery models to challenge high ability learners who, although they are not identified as gifted, show potential for exceptional performance. These TD Programs and inclusive service models for young children from under-served populations have been correlated to an increase in gifted identification and overall achievement in Cobb County's Title I schools, where teachers are passionate about the role of TD.

Hall County School District uses inclusive eligibility criteria and extensive support systems to ensure success of diverse students in its three International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programmes, including its IB Bilingual Diploma Programme. While including many IB students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Hall County student success rates in earning the IB Diploma exceed state averages.

The Peach County School District has added more advanced content classes for elementary students and a pilot kindergarten enrichment class called “Bright Beginnings,” which consists of one hour of enrichment each day – 30 minutes in reading and 30 minutes in math.

Valdosta City Schools Early College Academy is a grades 6-12 program that includes low-income, first generation high school/college students who are struggling learners with potential. The students become members of the Valdosta State community with access to many university resources, and where they are given the care and support needed to meet high expectations, succeed in school, and be prepared for college coursework.

These exemplary programs give Georgia a great foundation, one on which we can build efforts to raise more students to excellence and shrink excellence gaps. But a truly comprehensive, statewide effort is needed, and we encourage the Education Reform Commission to include academic excellence in its recommendations. Doing so would help inject a massive influx of intellectual and creative talent into our economy and communities.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.