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How should students be selected for Georgia gifted programs?


James Philmon is an educator who has spent 15 years supporting students and teachers in rural farming communities as well as progressive charter districts. He now serves as a curriculum enrichment specialist at a culturally diverse elementary school in the metro area. 

In this piece, Philmon delves into a longstanding hot button issue in school communities in every state I have ever covered – who gets selected into gifted programs and how. It’s also been a frequent blog topic over the years, especially these issues: 

Are the subjective factors used to admit students into gifted programs -- added in the mid-1990s to diversify classes -- reliable and fair? 

In determining which students meet the creativity and motivation tests, aren't teachers influenced by other factors, including a child's likability, exuberance and even parents? Parents note gifted classes often include the children of PTA officers, teachers and administrators and school council members. Parents also complain schools often see creativity through a narrow lens, overlooking kids who may be creative musicians or dancers. 

Would more students benefit if the funding for gifted went instead to lowering all class sizes and deepening all instruction?

If children are advanced, why can't schools move them up? Why can't bright third graders step into fourth grade for math or fifth grade for reading? 

The AJC has looked into gifted programs many times. In 2014, my colleague Ty Tagami reported:

Despite aggressive efforts to erase the gap between the races, white students in Georgia are roughly three times more likely than their black counterparts to be enrolled in gifted programs -- and roughly two-and-a-half times more likely to be in those classrooms than minority students, including Hispanics and Asians. That's according to an analysis of 2012-13 school year education data by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

The state has made significant progress. Twenty years ago, the AJC examined gifted participation and found white students were five times more likely than minorities to be enrolled in gifted programs. Poverty undoubtedly plays a role. But experts say the persistent racial disparity -- coming six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools -- is troubling. Gifted students benefit from smaller class sizes, more challenging work, specially-trained teachers and a more motivated, high-achieving peer group. The failure to close the gap has meant unequal access to an elite public education, seen as a path to top colleges and high paying jobs. 

Donna Ford, a leading researcher of racial disproportion in gifted programs, said any subjective measure like a teacher rating is suspect. "The number one reason is teacher bias," said Ford, a Vanderbilt professor who wrote a book about low minority participation in gifted programs. "I'm talking about prejudice and discrimination." 

With that background, here is Philmon’s piece:

By James Philmon 

Despite an increasingly diverse student body, white and Asian students far outnumber their black, Hispanic, and Native American classmates in gifted programs. This disparity is not new or unique to Georgia. However, recent changes to how the state allows schools to determine eligibility pose a potential setback. Limiting the options for teachers to contribute to eligibility criteria moves us back toward seeing kids as numbers and ignores the effect diverse backgrounds have on test results. 

Long ago in a faraway land, Alfred Binet and his colleague Theodore Simon developed the world’s first practical IQ test. Even though the Binet-Simon scale was originally intended as a scientific approach to addressing the needs of children with below average intelligence, it quickly became weaponized as a means to separate the haves from the have nots. Historically, an updated American version called the Stanford-Binet was the first to report IQ (Intelligence Quotient) as a single static score. Government officials quickly latched on to the idea of separating people by mental ability and began screening new immigrants as they entered Ellis Island. 

Not surprisingly, individual results were used to make sweeping generalizations about entire nationalities and added to calls for immigration restrictions. More recent examples include President Trump tweeting, “my IQ is one of the highest –and you all know it!” and later attacking U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., as “an extraordinarily low IQ person.” 

What does all this have to do with the price of tea in China—or the race of gifted kids in Georgia? When gifted education became part of state law in 1958, Georgia used IQ score as the sole factor for identification. To its credit, Georgia’s original legislation made it the first state to both mandate adapted services for gifted students and fully fund them for schools. 

However, the single-score approach to identification led to a huge disparity among those identified. By 1995, more than 90 percent of the state’s gifted students were white with black students making up less than 10 percent, even though the overall student population was closer to 60-40. The State Board of Education and state Legislature took decisive action at that time to expand identification to include multiple criteria. 

Students can now be identified through either the traditional method (IQ score or another score showing exceptional mental ability) or superior performance in any three of four areas: mental ability, achievement, creativity, and motivation. While mental ability is still based on a standardized test, the other three areas include the option for judging a student-produced product or performance, and the last two have an additional option of trained adults completing a rating scale. Rating scales were accepted for both creativity and motivation until 2013, when the Georgia Department of Education changed eligibility guidelines to only allow a rating scale for one area or the other. While some advocates for the change pointed to bias in teacher’s ratings of minority students, less options rarely produce better results. 

Rating scales provide an opportunity for teachers who work closely with students every day to report on how they demonstrate creativity and motivation in an authentic learning environment. The rating scales are not simple checklists or tick boxes. Instruments like the Gifted Eligibility Scales and Children’s Academic Intrinsic Motivation Inventory are produced by major testing companies and come with extensive guides for determining scores. 

Georgia also requires that gifted program teachers in every school train classroom teachers each year on using the rating scales and how to recognize gifted traits in diverse populations. Restricting the use of teacher rating scales increases a student’s reliance on either a paper-pencil test for creativity or their GPA for motivation. Both of these are problematic in their own way. 

Formal tests for creativity take place in a standardized environment removed from any actual learning. The test administrator is often unfamiliar with the students being tested, especially English Language Learners and other students receiving remediation-based services. Using GPA for motivation layers in all of the factors that we know affect student performance. Household income, family dynamics, and academic readiness all impact a student’s grades but exist separately from any intrinsic trait of motivation. 

Fortunately, creativity and motivation both play out in classrooms and on playgrounds every day through students’ assignments, questions, and interactions. If we are going to follow through with the original intent of “increasing educational advantages for gifted students in the public schools of Georgia”, teachers and schools need every appropriate option available to identify students from every background who possess that potential.


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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.