Are standards strangling school gifted program

Some say testing lets too few students in

Posted: Wednesday, May 10, 2000

The Juneau School District's program for gifted students is withering because it's so hard for students to qualify, some parents and school board members say.

Unless the number of students identified as gifted goes up, the program is on the way out, said board member Alan Schorr, who supports the program.

``We're at the point now where the program is barely viable,'' he said at a board work session Tuesday.

Since the school district changed the qualifying scores on aptitude and achievement tests several years ago, children identified as academically gifted and talented have dropped. The numbers went from 690 in 1996 to about 340 this year.

Juneau's numbers were high compared with other districts in the state and the nation, said Peggy Cowan, the district's director of curriculum and assessment. The change was an effort to identify students who needed special services because of their academic abilities, she said.

Students now must score at the 97th percentile on both types of tests.

Parents of gifted students said few children meet the standard when they test in the fifth and eighth grades, which determines who gets into the program in middle and high school.

Of 106 fifth-graders who tested last year, only 16 qualified for the middle school program, said John Kern, who co-chairs the Extended Learning Parent Advisory Committee. Yet 42 fifth-graders were in the gifted program then.

Parents of gifted students are particularly concerned about the middle school years. If students aren't challenged then, they won't be ready for advanced work in high school. And those years are hard socially and emotionally for gifted students, as for all kinds of students.

``Particularly at this age, it's not really a cool thing to be a smart kid. That label poses a lot of challenges for these kids,'' said Patty Ware of the parent group.

The parent committee wants middle schools to have advanced classes at all grade levels, social counseling for the gifted, a gifted arts program, and truly individualized education plans.

If gifted students aren't clustered within the classroom or in a pullout program, they feel isolated from their peers and aren't challenged enough, Ware said.

But it's hard to cluster gifted students in the middle schools when there are so few of them, Kern said.

Parents were especially concerned that Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School scatters the gifted children among the school's four houses. The school's philosophy is that every class will contain the full range of students, said Margo Waring of the parent committee. Teachers in large classes can't respond to gifted students' individual education plans, she said.

But not all parents of gifted children want them clustered together, said Dzantik'i Heeni Principal Les Morse in an interview. Some parents value choosing the house more, he said.

In a survey last year at Dzantik'i Heeni, responding parents of gifted sixth- and seventh-graders were evenly split in wanting their children clustered, either within a single house or within a class in a house. Many parents of eighth-graders did favor clustering, Morse said.

Houses at Dzantik'i Heeni either put gifted language students in one class or expect a higher level of work in the regular classroom, Morse said. Advanced math students, including some who aren't identified as gifted, take math classes at a higher grade level, and they typically add up to 10 percent of the student body, he said.

Morse thinks the district is about right in the number of students it identifies as gifted. But teachers need more training in how to offer differentiated instruction in the classroom, he said.

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