Wednesday, July 05, 2006

What Percent Gifted... Again...

From time to time, I come across an article that basically hits all the hot buttons in gifted education in one fell swoop. A recent article in the Springfield, Illinois State Journal-Register falls into that bucket.

The Springfield school district has created the Iles School for gifted elementary school children in the city. All kindergartners take a standard intelligence test; the children who test highest are invited to look into the Iles school.

So far so good. Education would be in a much better state in this country if all districts had advanced schools for gifted children, and if all districts cast as wide a net as possible to see which children needed the challenges a school for the gifted can supply.

But after the test, things get a little funny in Springfield. The district identifies more children as gifted than can be placed at Iles. So once parents respond to the notice letter, and ask to be considered for Iles, their children's names are placed in a lottery. Which means that every year, a certain percentage of parents learn their children are gifted, according to Springfield, and then are told "sorry!" This happens randomly; a child with an IQ of 160+ who may be completely failed by a regular school can be turned down in favor of a child with an IQ of 120, who might do fine in a good, regular school.

Furthermore, even getting into the lottery requires parents to receive the letter from the district, recognize that Iles might be a good choice, and take the initiative to be included. Not surprisingly, middle-class parents are more likely to take these steps; indeed, Springfield determined that black parents were participating in the lottery at lower rates than white parents, even though all their children had been identified as gifted. So much for the district being inclusive.

At the same time, people have been worried that Springfield's high rate of giftedness (about 9% of children are deemed gifted after the IQ test) means the program will be watered down. There's something to this. Children whose IQs put them in the top tenth of 1% of the population have very different needs than those whose IQs put them in the top 5-10%.

But this leaves the question: How should Springfield structure its program? I'm guessing that one of the reasons so many students are identified as gifted is that the district worries a higher cut-off will mean fewer kids from minority backgrounds or lower socioeconomic levels will attend Iles. I think they worry needlessly -- gifted kids come in all colors. But if some parents are responding at lower rates than other parents, the wide net concept isn't working as well as it should.

My preference would be to set a cut-off for the gifted designation in Springfield at exactly the level that the Iles school can accommodate. Then children who test above that level should be assigned automatically to Iles. No opting in. No lottery. (Parents could pull children out if they wished).

This would be an arbitrary cut-off, for sure. If Iles built more classrooms, the definition of gifted would expand. If there was a baby boom in Springfield, the gifted definition would likewise shrink to a smaller percentage. But designating children as gifted is always somewhat arbitrary when it comes to cut-offs. It is less arbitrary, though, when it comes to the individual highly gifted children who need special challenges. Children in the top tenth of 1% are just different than other kids. Of course, that's a hard thing to build a broad policy around! Continuing to use the intelligence test, and having parents opt out, rather than in, maximizes the chances of those highly gifted kids getting the education they need.

I'm curious how other people would like to see Springfield structure its gifted program.


L. Overdeck said...

Laura - I'm excited that a town could even get away with creating a gifted-only school! So many towns would condemn such a school as elitist, exclusionary, etc.

I agree that each year they should accept the capacity the school can handle. Population doesn't vary so much year to year.

As for raising minority participation, we see why such initiatives need $ behind them. They should hire a few case workers, a la CTY at Johns Hopkins, to work with the at-risk families and raise awareness.

Anonymous said...

"Springfield determined that black parents were participating in the lottery at lower rates than white parents, even though all their children had been identified as gifted. So much for the district being inclusive."

Are you saying the district is at fault when these parents don't take the initiative?