Monday, January 19, 2009

Facets of Gifted Education: Q&A with George Peternel

Many years ago, as a 7th and 8th grader at Clay Middle School in South Bend, Indiana, I participated in something called the "Midwest Talent Search." This program, which had gifted middle schoolers take out-of-level tests, and then offered summer and other enrichment programs, was always quite exciting for me. I liked taking the SAT, comparing my score with other MTS participants, and I loved the summer camps, which were basically the highlight of my entire year.

These days, the MTS is called NUMATS (Northwestern University Midwest Academic Talent Search), and today on Gifted Exchange, as part of our Facets of Gifted Education series, I'm happy to present a Q&A with George Peternel, associate director of Northwestern's Center for Talent Development.

GE: Why are out-of level tests important for gifted kids?

PETERNEL: There are a host of reasons why out-of-level (above-level) tests are important for gifted kids. Here are a few.

Most of the tests that gifted elementary and middle school students take are grade-level tests that are far too easy for them, especially the state-tests. There is little challenge and the high scores provide little satisfaction for the student.

Above grade-level testing is a more accurate measure of a gifted student’s academic abilities.

Grade level tests communicate misleading messages to parents and teachers about the academic capabilities of gifted kids. If a child scores at the 99th percentile of a grade level test, the message to many parents and teachers is: He/she is doing well and his/her academic placements are appropriate! If that same child takes an above level test and scores at a high percentile, the message is a very different: He/she needs a more advanced academic program.

Doing well on easy tests does not build confidence. Doing well on above-level tests does.

Gifted kids need to be intellectually stimulated in as many ways as possible. NUMATS testing is a powerful stimulus by itself. It also leads to taking advanced classes.

GE: What trends have been noticed over the past few decades … is there anything different about NUMATS? The kids? Their schools? Parents?

PETERNEL: When Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development began in 1981, the talent search included SAT and ACT testing for 6th, 7th and 8th grade students. In response to the demand for above-level testing of younger gifted students, EXPLORE testing was added in 2001. The name has been changed from Midwest Talent Search (MTS) to Midwest Academic Talent Search (MATS) to Northwestern University’s Midwest Academic Talent Search (NUMATS), serving students in grades 3-9. Test dates in December, May and June have been added to the calendar to give students and parents more flexibility.

NUMATS serves students in the Midwest, including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. In recent years, the number of students participating in NUMATS has been fairly constant (approximately 30,000 annually). What has changed is the percentage of home-schooled students; the percentage is increasing as more gifted children are home-schooled.

The schools have changed in many ways. There are more acceleration opportunities for gifted students, primarily at the middle school level and usually limited to one subject area, mathematics. NUMATS has put pressure on schools to respond to the needs of students ready for advanced classes, and many schools have responded accordingly. Other changes, however, have not been positive. Gifted programs have been eliminated because of budget cuts. In turn, there are fewer teachers in the schools trained to teach gifted students who understand the value of above-level testing. NCLB has impacted the priorities of schools; instead of giving high priority to meeting the needs of all students, administrator and teacher time and attention increasingly focuses on meeting AYP requirements.

The level of educational attainment of parents has changed; an increasing proportion of parents have college degrees and have similar expectations for their children. More and more, parents look at NUMATS as practice testing for their children that will help optimize test scores when the students become high school juniors and seniors and take the ACT or SAT as a requirement of the college admissions process.

GE: What should happen once a child receives a high score on an out-of-level test? Does this usually happen?

PETERNEL: High scores are the norm. Our own research has verified that NUMATS students score almost as well, on the average, as the high school juniors and seniors across the country taking the SAT or ACT.

After students receive the test scores, the NUMATS staff sends them “Planning and Resource Guides.” These guides assist parents and students in developing an academic plan that includes the course sequences offered by the schools as well as supplementary courses that they choose to take.

The schools also receive the scores, and the realization of how advanced the NUMATS students are. In some cases, these scores are used as placement information. In other cases, the scores prompt the school to take a closer look at their academic options for gifted kids and incorporate this information as they plan advanced courses.

What usually happens is that high scores stimulate thought by the student, parent and school about the academic abilities of the NUMATS students and a variety of outcomes occur.

GE: What is the most rewarding part of the job?

PETERNEL: The positive feedback that we receive from parents is most rewarding, whether it be from telephone calls, emails or the online surveys that we administer to NUMATS clients.

Seeing the excitement and joy on the faces of the students whose high scores qualified them for either the state-level awards ceremonies or the NUMATS ceremony held at Northwestern is also very rewarding.

Finally, the knowledge that the academic careers of thousands of gifted kids each year has been stimulated by the NUMATS process is very satisfying.

GE: What would you like parents to know about NUMATS (that they may not)?

PETERNEL: One of the outcomes of being a NUMATS participant is that each participant will receive a stream of “smart student mail” and “smart student email” from a variety of sources until the student is out of high school. These mailings and emailings include information about academic programs as well as scholarship opportunities.

Taking tests like the ACT or SAT years in advance increases test-taking confidence and provides content familiarity, usually resulting in even higher scores when the tests are taken for college admissions.

NCLB has created negative attitudes about testing (in general) in the minds of many parents of gifted kids. Don’t view NUMATS tests as being just “more tests;” view them instead as “the right kind of tests.”


Anonymous said...

The Princess Mom:
My boys have participated in NUMATS testing for the last four years. The scores they received were instrumental in our understanding as parents that the boys weren't receiving the kind of education that they needed in the public schools.

We have nothing but praise for the NUMATS testing opportunities and the summer camps. We haven't used the online enrichment classes yet, but those will be worked into our homeschool curriculum eventually.

Anonymous said...

I also took the SAT this year (7th grade) as part of CTY's Talent Search and scored above 700 in the verbal part and very close to that in math. The sad thing about it is that my school does nothing. I'm still in my regular math class, and have maintained a 99 average for half the year. There's no point in taking the SAT if your school doesn't take action after learning of your scores.

Anonymous said...

My daughter has tested through NUMATS for two years now. The Explore test score was the most convincing way to advocate for a grade skip and acceleration. This year I wasn't going to have her test, but she thought the experience was fun and wanted to do it again. She hopes to participate in a summer camp this year. I a impressed with the resource guide and references provided with the test results.

Anonymous said...

How is taking the SAT test a valid instrument for determining gifted ability when some children study for these tests. For example, nobody is going to score very high on the math portion unless they have already been exposed to algebra and geometry. How is it fair to compare the 7th and 8th graders who have not been pre-exposed to advanced math topics to those who have studied. I have read many blogs and many parents talking about how their children studied for the SAT.

Steve said...

My child took NUMATS as a 3rd and 4th grader and scored very high. However, our school decided to use only COGAT for gifted placement and she was left out. Incidently, she scored much higher than her twin sister on NUMATS, who was placed in the gifted classes based on her COGAT score. I can't tell you how frustrating this is as a parent!

Kevin said...

To Anonymous at 10:14, actually, the SAT is more like an IQ test than an achievement test, though there is some effect of prior education. My son did very well on the SAT after 6th grade, on both the math and reading parts (though not the writing part). It is true that he had had some algebra and geometry at that point, but the SAT math test doesn't require much prior knowledge---problem-solving ability is more important.

Rebekah said...

I just received the information on NUMATS today. My son is already in a gifted program through his public school. I feel his school addresses the needs of the gifted kids very well with accelerated coursework. I am wondering if there is any advantage to participating in NUMATS and taking these tests if his needs are already being met. He is also strong athletically and academics are not his only interest, so I don't foresee his wanting to participate in academic camps. Does anyone have any thoughts on this?