The purpose of this blog series is to analyze the reasons behind the underidentification of certain identity groups in a large school district’s gifted programs, including its prestigious gifted school. Many of the criteria and methods used by the district to determine which students are accepted to the school contribute to racial and ethnic imbalances at the school, as shown in these pie charts:
The “Equity Emphasis” of Goal 3 of the district’s Strategic Framework: Student-Centered for Student Success is “Identify and address inequities in learning opportunities for students by investigating and implementing best practices and seeking innovative solutions.” Long before this strategic framework was approved by the school board in 2020, the inequities illustrated in the pie charts had been identified. The public is still waiting for “innovative solutions” to address these inequities. When it comes to the gifted school, the words of the district’s core values—Put Students First, Seek Growth, Be Open to Change, Do Great Work Together, and Value Differences—ring hollow.
As mentioned previously in this series, Virginia state law requires school districts to “submit a comprehensive plan for the education of gifted students to the Department of Education (DOE) for technical review.” In a commendable display of transparency, the district of interest’s Local Plan for the Education of the Gifted 2020-2025, otherwise known as the 5-year plan, is accessible on its website.
As outlined in the 5-year plan, the criteria used by the district’s gifted identification and placement committee to determine whether a student is intellectually gifted are also used by the gifted school’s selection committee to decide which students will be invited to attend the school. To distinguish between these two purposes, the criteria are called “components” in the gifted school selection process. The components that comprise each applicant’s profile are listed in the 5-year plan:
- Student Achievement (as indicated on the most current report card)
- Standardized Test Scores
- Parent Information
- Teacher Information
- GRT [Gifted Resource Teacher] Information
- Student Responses to Interview Questions
To recap, Parts 2 and 3 of this series covered Standardized Test Scores. Part 4 examined Teacher Information and GRT Information, noting that Parent Information no longer includes a written narrative from parents explaining why they believe their child is gifted. Today’s topic is Student Achievement – as indicated on the most current report card.
The 5-year plan states that the gifted school selection committee uses “three questions as consideration when examining [gifted school] applications.” The questions are:
- Is there evidence throughout the application that this student needs more than what is provided through the resource cluster program at his/her home school?
- Is there evidence that shows this student has the potential to be successful in the [gifted school] setting?
- Is there evidence that the student is either achieving at high levels OR is displaying gifted characteristics and behaviors as identified by the parent, teachers, and/or GRT?
Answering the first question is complicated and subjective, which is something I will address in the final installment of this series. The last question is essentially moot because of the clause that follows the word “OR.” The evidence that a student “is displaying gifted characteristics and behaviors as identified by the parent, teachers, and/or GRT” is, in all likelihood, the same evidence that led to the student being labeled as gifted in the first place. Students who have not been identified as gifted are ineligible to apply for admission to the gifted school.
The second question, however, does have merit. Given the gifted school’s high academic standards, “evidence that shows this student has the potential to be successful” undoubtedly includes the student’s report card grades. Several years ago, the district adopted standards-based report cards for the elementary grades, the time when most students—the majority of whom are first and fifth graders—apply for admission to the school. The gifted school selection committee’s decision as to whether or not a student is accepted to the top-ranked public school in the state is often dependent on the student’s grades on their report card.
The most noticeable difference between traditional report cards and standards-based report cards is the absence of the grades A-F, or A-E in districts that don’t have Fs. According to the Elementary Report Card and Standards-Based Grading page on the district’s website, “All students will receive only a proficiency score indicating how well he or she understands the concept or skill taught during that marking period.” The proficiency scores are as follows:
- N (Novice) – Needs improvement; not making expected progress toward proficiency
- DP (Developing Proficiency) – Beginning to grasp and apply key concepts, processes and skills
- P (Proficient) – Regularly grasps and applies key concepts, processes and skills with limited errors
- AP (Advanced Proficient) – Consistently demonstrates proficiency; grasps, applies and extends key concepts, process [sic] and skills
The website also states, “Standards-based grading is an emerging national trend that progressive school divisions across the country are embracing.” In truth, the concept of standards-based grading is not emerging – it’s been with us for over two decades. My colleague Tom Guskey advocated for standards-based report cards in his 2000 book, and forward-thinking school districts began adopting standards-based report cards in the early 21st century.
Despite revisions in the way grades are reported, educational assessment experts maintain that these changes are meaningless if the grades are not reliable (e.g., Brookhart et al., 2016; Guskey & Brookhart, 2019; Link & Guskey, 2019). There are plenty of studies indicating that grading practices vary between teachers on the same grade level at the same school, not to mention grading inconsistencies across schools within the same district (Brookhart, 1994; McMillan, 2019). In chapter 4 of Guskey’s and Sue Brookhart’s 2019 book, Jim McMillan explained, “Teacher judgment is at the heart of grading and based on each teacher’s unique teaching styles, values, and beliefs…. [and] this leads to some level of inconsistency in grading.” What are the implications of emphasizing students’ report card grades to determine acceptance to the gifted school?
Other studies have examined how teachers’ racial bias affects their grading. Quinn (2020) conducted a study that included over 1,500 teachers. Unsurprisingly, most were White females. Each teacher evaluated one of two randomly distributed second-grade writing samples. The only differences between the samples were the names of the writer’s brother and the brother’s friend in the 22-word story. On one paper, the brother’s name was “Connor” and the friend’s name was “Scot.” On the other paper, the brother was named “Dashawn” and the friend was “Arin.” Teachers were asked to give their writing sample a rating of below grade level, at grade level, or above grade level. Teachers who were shown the Dashawn/Arin version were less likely to rate the writing on grade level or above grade level compared with teachers who graded the almost identical Connor/Scot version. Although White, Latine, and Black teachers demonstrated similar bias, the bias was statistically significant for the White group only. Considering these findings and the results from other research on teachers’ racial bias (e.g, McKown & Weinstein, 2008; Oates, 2003; Tenenbaum & Ruck, 2007), I ask again: What are the implications of emphasizing students’ report card grades to determine acceptance to the gifted school?
Deportment of Education
When my parents attended public school, they received deportment grades on their report cards. Deportment was called conduct during my K-12 career. On the district’s standards-based report card for elementary students, there are no conduct grades; the nonacademic areas are Citizenship, Participation and Collaboration, and Productivity. Teachers in grades 1-5 evaluate their students’ proficiency in the “standards” (i.e., expectations) shown below using the N, DP, P, AP scale described in the previous section. Teachers enter their names next to the word “Teacher” under each area.
Standards-based grading was supposed to fix the problem of teachers incorporating nonacademic factors (e.g., attitude, classroom behavior, effort) into students’ academic grades, but when a district changes its grading system, it has to address “teachers’ beliefs and long-standing habits and experience, not only about grading but also about learning, effort, discipline, and classroom management” (Brookhart, 2011). Even with standards-based report cards, the academic grades that many students receive are, to a certain degree, reflective of how their teacher has assessed their disposition and behavior. This practice benefits White students more than it does Black students (Link & Guskey, 2019).
Countless teachers evaluate Black students differently than White students due to a misguided belief in deficit thinking (a.k.a., deficit assumptions, deficit framing, deficit ideology, deficit theory). As Valencia (1997) wrote in The Evolution of Deficit Thinking: Educational Thought and Practice,
The deficit thinking model is an endogenous theory – positing that the student who fails in school does so because of internal deficits or deficiencies. Such deficits manifest, it is alleged, in limited intellectual abilities, linguistic shortcomings, lack of motivation to learn and immoral behavior. . . . genetics, culture and class, and familial socialization have all been postulated as the sources of alleged deficits. . . . [deficit thinking] is unduly simplistic, lacks empirical evidence, more ideological than scientific, grounded in classicism and racism, and offers counterproductive educational prescriptions for school success.
Teachers who subscribe to deficit thinking use it as an excuse to explain the academic struggles of children of color and economically disadvantaged students. It’s much easier for these educators to look outward than to entertain the possibility that their students’ struggles might have something to do with their own teaching methods and abilities. “Whether the decision is assignment to a low-ability group or track, explanation for a failing grade, establishing the nature of teacher-student relationships, defense of the curriculum, or the treatment of persons accused of violating school rules, the justification of the decision ultimately rests on one or more deficit theories” (Pearl, 1997).
Before making recommendations that speak to the issues mentioned in today’s post, I want to point out a recently discovered irony, something I overlooked while writing Promoting Privilege: Selecting Students for a Public Gifted School. The irony is that two of the district’s criteria to identify students for gifted services—the same components used to select students for the gifted school—seem to be working against each other.
In Part 4 of this blog series, we looked at the district’s Teacher Checklist for Observing Gifted Behaviors, an amalgamated inventory of gifted children’s behavioral characteristics that someone with good intentions blended badly. It’s unlikely that the homemade checklist was field-tested adequately, and there appears to be no evidence of its validity or reliability. But back to the irony.
A comparison of items on the Teacher Checklist for Observing Gifted Behaviors with the district’s standards-based report card revealed that some of the items contradict the standards/expectations for elementary students on the report card. For example, a child who “Questions authority” is probably not someone who regularly “listens and follows rules, procedures, and directions.” Students who “may be critical of others,” “dominate others,” or are “aggressive in disagreement” aren’t exactly poster children in the area of Participation and Collaboration. There are several other behaviors on the checklist that are counter to behavioral expectations on the report card.
According to the 5-year plan, the gifted school “selection committees [sic] review each profile and rate the students for their potential for exceptional performance.” Students who are “consistently strong in all the application components,” including Student Achievement (as indicated on the most current report card), are “a definite yes,” which means they get invited to attend the elite school. But a profoundly gifted child whose report card contains a slew of Ns and DPs—especially in the areas of Citizenship, Participation and Collaboration, and Productivity—along with an unfavorable teacher narrative cannot be “consistently strong in all the application components,” and would be relegated to the “possible, but not likely yes” category. Can we assume that a “not likely yes” is the same as a “likely no”?
A Message from the Administrators on the gifted school’s website claims they “are dedicated to creating an educational environment where the needs of the gifted child are the focus.” The district’s website says that the gifted school’s curriculum is designed “to meet the needs of the gifted learner.” In contrast, the method of rating gifted school applicants described in the 5-year plan conveys the message that the school is for “the top candidates” whose profile components indicate “their potential for exceptional performance,” as stated in the plan. The actual purpose of the gifted school does not appear on the school’s or district’s websites, and it is not in the 5-year plan either. These omissions beg the question, which is it? It isn’t clear whether the school is for “the gifted child” or for the “top candidates” with “exceptional performance” (i.e., high achievers). The absence of a definitive purpose for the gifted school is another topic I’m saving for the last part of my blog series, which, dear readers, is on the horizon.
While teacher subjectivity in grading will be around as long as there are teachers and grades, racial bias in any form has no place in our society. In last week’s post I wrote, “the conscious and unconscious racial bias of educators… is at the heart of the problem of underrepresentation among Black, Latine, and economically disadvantaged students at the gifted school.” I stand by these words.
In Part 2, I recommended that all educators in the district should “receive comprehensive DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] training and professional learning in areas such as implicit bias, cultural competency, and anti-racism.” As part of this enhanced training, teachers should be shown research that demonstrates the current reality of racial bias in grading – for example, the study that used the Dashawn/Arin and Connor/Scot writing samples. In addition, they should learn about the fallacy of deficit thinking and the harm it causes.
Despite evidence that reducing people’s implicit biases will not necessarily alter their behavior (Forscher et al., 2019), there are studies indicating that some interventions are successful in reducing racial inequities in schools (e.g., LaForett & De Marco, 2020; McIntosh et al., 2021; Okonofua et al., 2022). Mandatory DEI training is ongoing in the district, but its effectiveness has not been evaluated. Professional learning that does not lead to meaningful change is a waste of everyone’s time.
Next Up in Part Six
In my next post we will look at the last criteria that the district employs to determine if a student should be identified as intellectually gifted. These criteria are also used by the gifted school selection committee to decide if a student is qualified to attend the gifted school. The criteria are listed on the district’s website as follows:
- Student interview responses (Grades 5-12)
- 1st Grade Problem Based [sic] Task (PBT)
As always, I invite readers who have questions, comments, or better information than me to comment in the text box below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.