Costs crimp gifted testing

School shortfall could keep more Natives out of advanced classes

Posted: Thursday, April 12, 2001

The Juneau School District cannot afford an assessment system that identifies a greater variety of gifted students, including more Natives, administrators say.

About 20 percent of the school district's students are Native, but they make up only 4 percent of the 348 students in the extended learning program for gifted and talented kids.

In the elementary grades the program includes more challenging in-class assignments and pull-out sessions with a specialist. There's also an after-school arts class. The middle schools let gifted students take some higher grade-level classes or do advanced work in their usual classrooms. The high school offers advanced classes, academic mentors and counseling.

Students get into the extended learning program by scoring highly on several standardized tests that measure achievement and aptitude. Only students who are referred by parents or teachers are assessed.

The school district tried out a different type of assessment with some first-graders last year, one that uses five mostly nonwritten tests to assess a variety of problem-solving abilities. If implemented, it would be given to all kindergartners late in the school year.

The Discover assessment was developed by University of Arizona researchers in the late 1980s to find gifted students among the various ethnic groups in proportion to their representation in the general population.

C. June Maker, one the assessment's originators, said a long-term study in North Carolina showed that students identified under Discover and placed in gifted programs achieve more than students not identified.

"Part of the reason to do this is to identify them early and have them identify themselves as part of a gifted population, so they challenge themselves," said Assistant Superintendent Peggy Cowan.

Eight of 95 first-graders assessed under Discover last year would have qualified for extended learning. Two were Native and one was of Asian ancestry.

Seven of the 95 students had qualified through standardized tests, although not all of them were assessed that way because the current system is based on referrals. Only two students who qualified under Discover already had qualified the traditional way.

But the school district can't afford $28,000 to hire trained observers for 22 days a year to assess all kindergartners, Cowan said. Starting up the program would cost another $15,000 for training, she said.

The Discover assessments require teams of observers, who give instructions and watch students as they manipulate objects, tell stories and write stories (if they're old enough), and take a math test.

The school district's draft five-year plan for the extended learning program includes the Discover assessment, as well as the option of standardized tests, in the elementary grades. The school board's Program Evaluation Committee is reviewing the plan this month before Superintendent Gary Bader signs off on it.

The committee hasn't made a formal decision yet, but members seem to agree with the administration's recommendation to delay implementing the Discover assessment, said committee chairman and School Board member Alan Schorr.

"It wasn't the right time to look at doing more when we may have to look at doing less," Schorr said.

The school district's budget is tight, the amount of local and state funding is still up in the air, and the district is negotiating with teachers over a new contract.

Barbara Mitchell, an extended learning teacher at Gastineau Elementary, said she understands that the cost of the Discover assessment puts it at a lower budget priority than rehiring teachers for next year.

"I am hopeful that in the near future, the usefulness of the Discover process in providing valuable information about the strengths of all children, no matter what their ethnicity, will keep it high on the 'to do' list on our Extended Learning Action Plan," she said.

John Kern, chairman of the Extended Learning Parent Advisory Committee, said the group wants the Discover assessment to be fully funded.

"I think our goal is to establish a broad range of participation in the program that continues on through high school," Kern said. "To do that we need to have a solid basis in the elementary schools for children to start participating in. Discover was the best solution we could come up with to getting students off to a good start in elementary school."

Participation in the extended learning program now drops by nearly two-thirds in middle school. The student numbers rise in high school, but are still down about a third from elementary school levels.

Eric Fry can be reached at

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