Thursday, April 17, 2008

NYC debates: Are top 5% or 10% gifted?

New York City has made a number of positive changes to its gifted programs recently. In the past, different districts had different standards, and the application process was far from standardized. This meant, inevitably, that more savvy parents were better able to navigate the system, and that being gifted meant something different in some districts than others. This year, all children were able to take a 2-test screen for giftedness, and anyone who scored in the top 5% (on a national scale) would be guaranteed a seat in a gifted program.

This was as fair and straightforward a way of assessing giftedness as possible. Using two tests enabled scorers to look at multiple data points, and since the two tested different things (one aimed to be more of an intelligence test, and one more of a school readiness test) the tests were supposed to give a more complete picture.

Unfortunately, the results didn't turn out the way many people in the city wanted. This article from the New York Times explains that only 1,637 of about 50,000 kindergarten and first grade applicants met the 5% cut-off. Currently there are 4,649 kindergarten and first grade children enrolled in the city's gifted programs.

Not only was the overall number lower than people expected, some districts didn't even produce enough top scorers to field a single full class. District 7 in the South Bronx, for instance, had only 5 children score above the 5% cut-off.

So what did the New York City schools do? To their credit, they didn't revert to the old standard whereby the definition of giftedness changed from district to district. Instead, they changed the definition of giftedness overall. Now, students who score in the top 10% on a national scale on the two tests will be eligible for a seat. This raises the total number to about 3,000, and produces a full class of 13 children in the South Bronx (even so, District 16 in Bed-Stuy will have only 5 children qualify under the 10% standard; last fall 34 children enrolled in gifted programs. Previously enrolled children are not affected by the new standard).

What can I say? There is no magic number that makes someone gifted. Ten percent is no more arbitrary than five. I think 10% is politically more difficult to defend than interventions for the top 0.1% kids who cannot be served in normal classroom environments. Many kids in the top 10% can be served in rigorous, regular school programs as long as they're ability-grouped to some extent. Or they can skip a grade and be served well in the next class up. The problem is that New York does not, as a general rule, have a lot of rigorous schools or grade skipping. So gifted education winds up filling this gap. Since they had the teachers, had the seats and had the budget, they choose to fill the programs, rather than re-jigger the whole concept.

What do you think, readers? Did New York City do the right thing?

13 comments:

The Princess Mom said...

Did they do the right thing? No, based on many reasons. What's to say they won't revise the cutoff downward again next year or the year after? How long until the top 25% of students are "gifted"? Gifted education is a necessary accommodation for a genuine learning difference, not a prize seat in a prize school.

I was also scandalized to learn (in the comments section) that the NYC schools had given everyone copies of previous year's OLSATs to study from before taking the test!!! Doesn't that completely invalidate the result?

Anonymous said...

Many tests are designed under the assumption that old tests are available, so that there is no "foul" in studying the old tests. Indeed, most math competitions are set up that way and the old tests published as study guides by those who organize the competitions.

If the OLSAT is that sort of test, then studying the old ones is perfectly fair. In fact, since the goal was to identify students within the 50000, then having all the students study the old tests is fairer than just having a few, whose parents know how to the the copies, study them.

Anonymous said...

I find the numbers kind of interesting; 50,000 sounds like a large sample so expecting about 2500 students to qualify would have been reasonable. What reasons are being given for the lower number of students qualifying at the top 5% level?

Anonymous said...

50,000 kids is a big sample, but it is far from random. There is a huge disparity between urban and suburban populations on test scores.

Anonymous said...

I am a California school psychologist and grandmother of an NYC preschooler. Rather than tracking kids from early grades, it would be a much better idea to have smaller classroom sizes and more opportunities for individualized curriculum. G & T classes become institutionalized elitism. The public school classes end up offering what amounts to a private school education at public expense. The need for special programs should be based on the ability or inability of the school to meet the educational needs of the child. As to the validity or ethics of studying old tests, the test manufacturers should be consulted on that.

The Princess Mom said...

The OLSAT is an IQ test, like the Stanford-Binet or the Wechsler tests, not an SAT-type achievement test for which there are previous tests available. Our local school district also uses the OLSAT to screen for gifted, but we were not allowed to study for it. In fact, the psychologist refused to even tell me what test they were using until after the tests were administered.

Anonymous said...

The OLSAT is a group ability test. It is not the equivalent of individually administered IQ tests such as the Stanford-Binet or Wechsler tests.

Anonymous said...

There does seem to be only one form of the OLSAT8, so studying "previous year's" OLSAT would seem to be a major violation of testing protocol. I suspect that the comments were incorrect, and that the students were studying from some sort of OLSAT study guide, which (while legal) would be rather pointless.

Anonymous said...

In NYC, the practice test was OLSAT 7, a partial version. The fear is that there were copies of OLSAT 8 out there for unscrupulous parents.

BTW -- importantly OLSAT is designed for kindergarteners, NOT 4 year olds. This I feel explains the numerical shortfall. There is a group of parents who's children scored above the 90% (but not 97% required for the 3 city-wide schools) who are setting about to challenge the results on this basis. There is not really a norm for this test for 4 year olds, so the use of percentiles are especially arbitrary.

Anonymous said...

When I saw the practice test last year for the NYC OLSAT and tried it with my daughter, I immediately went out and hired a tutor from Manhattan Edge. I knew my child was bright, but I wanted to make sure she would not blow a fuse when sitting down with someone besides me. When she did take the test, she thought it was a game to win and came out asking me if she won. It was very cute - enough to break a mother's heart. The point I want to make is, whether it is elitism or not, you want your child to get the best possible education. She will be attending Anderson in Sept and I know she will be surrounded by children that want to learn - their parents will be dedicated to that - how do you screen other schools to get this mode of thinking, only by getting your child into one of these programs!

HvnLee said...

I think NYC has to focus on making sure that those children at PreK age get the opportunity to adequate programs. Children may have the ability but without the proper early education they will not demonstrate it, particularly during a formal examination.

I for one had to jump through hoops not only to get my child into a preK program (which is only 2 hours) but also to get the gifted and talented program application packet for my child. My Child attends a PreK program through a CBO funded by the City, yet they had no information on this program. I found out about by looking through the Dpt. of Ed website which I do periodically.

Mausalot said...

The cut of of 5% or 10% is anything but arbitrary. The idea is to identify children who are not well served in a typical classroom. Research clearly shows that students in the top 5% do NOT get what they need in a typical classroom, but those who score from 90-94% (and below to a certain point) can be served if an educator differentiates effectively. Above 95%, students need acceleration which only gifted programs tend to offer effectively.

Amylove1284 said...

I agree with 'The Princess Mom'. My daughter is currently enrolled in UPK and I was in shock at the curriculum her teachers had set up for her class. Halfway into her school year her other classmates are finally learning how to do things she had mastered well before entering Pre-K.

Only offering a Gifted and Talented school to QUALIFIED students that score in the top 5% would allow for those kids who truly are talented to get the education they deserve at the level they require. Either that or allow for more advanced students the option to be skipped a grade from as early on as Pre-K. Otherwise, what's the point of these tests?