Test may diversify gifted student program

New way to identify talented students aims to bring in minorities

Posted: Friday, May 05, 2000

When Katie Bausler's son was identified as gifted in kindergarten, she questioned whether the label was that important.

``But in third, fourth, fifth grades, it made all the difference in the world, because he received the challenge academically he needs,'' Bausler said. ``I don't know if he would have gotten it if he hadn't been identified.''

Who gets those opportunities has been a nagging question for the Juneau School District. Of 372 students in the gifted and talented program, only 11 students, or 3 percent, are Alaska Natives, although 22 percent of the district's students are Native.

Hispanics, with five students in the program, are underrepresented by about half. Asian and Pacific Island students in the program are roughly proportional to their population in the district.

Now the district is considering a method of identifying young gifted and talented students that is intended to include more minorities.

Students who qualify as gifted and talented receive individualized education plans and can get advanced school work in the regular classroom or special classes. The program is also called extended learning.

The district tried out the Discover assessment, developed at the University of Arizona, with first-graders at Glacier Valley Elementary in the fall and at Gastineau Elementary this spring.

Discover ``has been successful at identifying minority students, and our extended-learning population has a small number of minority students,'' said Peggy Cowan, the district's director of curriculum and assessment.

The district now tests for eligibility in the program at the request of teachers or parents. It uses a cognitive abilities test and an achievement test. Both focus on English and math, and one includes nonverbal puzzles.

``For language-minority students, they're not going to do well on a language test in particular or on other tests because they're not going to get past the language part,'' Cowan said.

Lonna Stevens, a Native who teaches drama and acting to youths, said she knows a drum dancer who sings beautifully. But when Stevens saw the girl in class, her head was down and her hand wasn't raised.

``I feel like there are so many Native students I have worked with who are gifted and talented and have incredible imaginations or minds -- singing, dancing or drumming and writing abilities -- but maybe in the classroom aren't outspoken,'' Stevens said.

``There has to be a broader range of how we qualify gifted and talented students. It has to come from all levels. They just can't sit down with a piece of paper in front of them and fill out this paperwork, and somehow that qualifies them,'' she said.

The Discover assessment tests all students in a grade and for several ways of thinking, such as spatial, logical and verbal, advocates said. Trained observers watch students solve problems.

In one test, students are asked to create objects with pieces of cardboard and plastic connectors. Teachers look for complexity and uniqueness in the constructions, and the students' fluency, humor and enjoyment of the task, wrote University of Arizona researcher C. June Maker in an article.

In the other tests, students make puzzles of increasing complexity out of pieces of plastic. They group items together from an assortment of toys and tell stories about them, solve problems on a math work sheet, and write or tell stories.

Indian Studies teacher Glenda Lindley watched one child liken a box of jelly beans to a toy car that had an orchard's name on it. The child said they were both brightly colored and had signs on them.

``That kid is thinking a little deeper than the kid who says `Two girls''' and holds up two dolls, Lindley said.

Barbara Mitchell, the extended learning teacher at Gastineau for 11 years, said Discover measured the way students function in the classroom.

Some parents who have students in the gifted program said they support new assessments, but they wonder if the district will follow through with services. Many parents of gifted and talented students said they feel the district doesn't respond to current needs, especially in middle and high school.

``If they can't implement a good program for children with academic gifts, something that's been done for decades around the country, I don't know what they would do with this new program,'' said Margo Waring, vice president of the Extended Learning Parent Advisory Committee.

Educators at other schools that use Discover said students live up to higher expectations.

Pueblo Gardens Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz., has used the Discover assessment for five years for all its students, said Principal Carmen Kemery. Nearly all of them are low-income Hispanics or blacks.

The school has a small gifted and talented program. But it also uses the Discover assessments to shape the regular curriculum. The school tries to develop children's intelligence in their strong points, Kemery said, and standardized test scores have increased.

``In the past, these kids have not really been achieving. But we no longer look at a deficit model. We look at an accelerated model,'' Kemery said.

Martha Polaco, a teacher of gifted students at Nancy Lopez Elementary School in Roswell, N.M., said the number of identified students has grown to 23 from four since the Discover test came into use.

The students' ``self-confidence is really enhanced ... and a lot of them are performing better in the regular classroom because they're more confident,'' Polaco said.

No decision has been made yet on whether to use Discover in Juneau. District officials plan to meet in early summer to review it.

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