Put Students First. Seek Growth. Be Open to Change. (Part Four)

So far in this blog series, I’ve shown the discrepancies between the proportion of Black, Latine, and economically disadvantaged students in a large school district and the representation of students from these identity groups in the district’s elite gifted school. I’ve also analyzed some of the reasons for these inequities. The table below illustrates the underrepresentation and overrepresentation of the main identity groups at the school over a 2-year span. 

In Part 2 and Part 3, I described the district’s use of test scores from two standardized tests, the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT) and the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT). Scores from these tests are among the criteria used to determine whether students are accepted to the gifted school. Researchers have expressed concerns about using the NNAT to identify economically disadvantaged children for gifted programs (e.g., Carman & Taylor, 2009; Lohman & Gambrel, 2012; Shaunessy, Karnes, & Cobb, 2004), and there are also questions about using the CogAT. David Lohman—the primary author of the CogAT—reported that CogAT forms “substantially reduce but do not eliminate group differences” (2011), while Jack Naglieri—the author of the NNAT—wrote that tests such as the CogAT “become a barrier to smart children who do not have adequate academic skills…. and the failure to include diverse populations [in gifted programs] because of limited academic skills can be described as a social injustice” (2008). 

Before students can be considered for admittance to the gifted school, they must be identified as intellectually gifted in accordance with the criteria and guidelines set by the district. The criteria listed on the district’s website are as follows: 

  • Academic achievement  
  • Achievement test scores [CogAT] 
  • Teacher information 
  • Ability test scores [NNAT] 
  • Student interview responses (Grades 5-12) 
  • 1st Grade Problem Based [sic] Task 

In this installment, we see how individual teachers can help or hurt a student’s chances of being identified as gifted and getting into the gifted school. 

Subjectivity Abounds 

In last week’s post, I alluded to a video titled Gifted 2.0, which is posted on the gifted page of the district’s website. The narrator of the video explains that Gifted 2.0 “reflects the most effective, current, and equitable practices in gifted identification and gifted services as recommended by nationally renowned gifted education experts.” In reality, the district’s gifted identification process is neither the most effective nor the most current, and it is certainly not the most equitable. I wouldn’t be writing this blog series if it was. Before anyone in the district can truthfully make these claims, its leaders must rethink and rework the district’s approach to identifying gifted students to demonstrate that all—not just some—students are put first. (As a reminder, Put Students First, Seek Growth, and Be Open to Change are three of the district’s core values.) 

The narrator of Gifted 2.0 also says that the application processes for gifted services and admission to the gifted school “have been improved to reflect the current best practices in gifted education and to provide an evidence-based application process without subjectivity because in [the district] we strive to offer gifted education as a pathway for those students who need it and we do not want the barrier of an overly complicated application process to get in the way of that pathway.” The reference to “the barrier of an overly complicated application process” in this grandiose sentence is simply an indirect way of saying that parents or guardians who apply for their child to be admitted to the district’s gifted program or school are no longer allowed to submit narratives explaining why they believe the child is gifted.  

The district should be commended for eliminating parent information from the criteria used to determine whether a student is accepted to its gifted programs and gifted school. As I wrote over a year ago in Promoting Privilege: Selecting Students for Public Gifted School, “Curbing the amount of information that parents are allowed to submit might help level the playing field [for all children] by removing one factor: highly educated parents tend to write better than parents with less education.” 

Getting rid of parents’ narratives took away the possibility that well-written or exaggerated narratives would tip the scales in favor of the children of skilled writers or exaggerators; however, it doesn’t mean the district has “an evidence-based application process without subjectivity,” as stated in Gifted 2.0. Today’s post looks at the highly subjective criterion of teacher information.  

Form an Opinion

The district’s 5-year plan (“a comprehensive plan for the education of gifted students” submitted to the Virginia Department of Education as required by state law) explains that teacher information comes in at least two forms, so to speak:  

  • Teacher information form of behavioral characteristics of the gifted, including a written narrative. 
  • Teacher information form(s) based on the need for a modified/differentiated program. 

Check the List 

It isn’t clear what the “forms(s) based on the need for a modified/differentiated program” actually are, but the “Teacher information form of behavioral characteristics” is the district’s Teacher Checklist for Observing Gifted Behaviors. The checklist appears to be locally developed – most of its 48 items are borrowed, paraphrased, or edited items from other gifted rating scales. Readers who can shed light on the checklist’s origin are encouraged to share information in the comments box at the bottom of this post.

Some districts create and customize their own rating scales, yet gifted education experts such as Karen Westberg advise against this practice. In The Theory and Practice of Identifying Students for Gifted and Talented Education Services (2012), Westberg explained why using homemade checklists is not a good idea:  

Much too often, we find that consultants or school districts have created their own teacher rating forms or checklists, which have absolutely no support for their reliability and validity. In many cases, these forms have been created in an earnest attempt to find students who demonstrate strengths not addressed on aptitude or achievement measures, but school personnel need to realize that, when using teacher judgment instruments with no empirical support, they are using a highly crude measurement tool, much like using one’s arm span to measure the length of a football field.  

The district’s Teacher Checklist for Observing Gifted Behaviors contains a number of faulty items. Several are double-barreled and even triple-barreled: “Preoccupied with own thoughts, asks unrelated questions, may appear disorganized.” The directions instruct classroom teachers “to place a checkmark if regularly observed,” but they don’t explain what the teacher should do if—for example, in the case of this item—a student is regularly preoccupied, disorganized at times, and occasionally asks an unrelated question. Concerning the usefulness of this item, during my 8 years of teaching first and second grade, I didn’t have many students who were not preoccupied or disorganized to some extent. In addition, young children are prone to asking unrelated questions.  

Arguably the greatest challenge in developing surveys, rating scales, and checklists is choosing clear and appropriate wording. Vague and ambiguous items on the Teacher Checklist for Observing Gifted Behaviors are open to interpretation, which means that completed forms are tainted with subjectivity and inconsistency across the district. To remedy this situation, the district should replace their fabricated checklist with a reliable instrument that has evidence of validity (e.g., Gifted Rating Scales; Scales for Identifying Gifted Students; Scales for Rating the Behavioral Characteristics of Superior Students, also known as The Renzulli Scales).  

A Shred of Evidence 

Besides deciding whether to check any of the 48 items on the Teacher Checklist for Observing Gifted Behaviors, teachers are asked to “provide specific evidence/examples in the space provided for each item checked.” In other words, teachers completing forms for their students are supposed to elaborate on the student’s giftedness in each of the following areas: Communication/Language, Cognitive Learning, Creativity/Imagination, Social/Emotional, Motivation, and Interests.  

Although teacher narratives are a common method of identifying gifted students in schools and districts, anecdotes do not contribute to an “evidence-based application process without subjectivity,” as Gifted 2.0 maintains. Here are a few of the problems with teacher narratives: 

1.  Given the amount of paperwork* and time constraints** that teachers typically have, some might rush through or skip the written portion of the Teacher Checklist for Observing Gifted Behaviors, especially if they have a lot of forms to finish. This will not help the affected applicants get into a gifted program or a gifted school. 

2.  Just like parents, some teachers write better than others. A well-written narrative that aligns with conventional thinking about gifted behaviors can persuade a selection committee that a child deserves to be placed in the district’s gifted program or at the gifted school. Poorly written narratives can have the opposite effect. The writing capacity of Gifted Resource Teachers (GRTs) also comes into play, since they are required to write a narrative about each applicant for gifted services at their school. 

3.  A large body of research indicates that teachers’ racial bias affects their ability to evaluate Black students fairly (e.g., Downey & Pribesh, 2004; Ford, 1995; Ford, 1998; Ford, 2013; Ford, Grantham, & Milner, 2004). One study reported, “teachers (the vast majority of whom are White) are more effective at identifying giftedness among White students, but less effective with CLD [culturally and linguistically diverse] students” (Ford, Grantham, & Whiting, 2008). The vast majority of classroom teachers and GRTs in the district of interest are White, so it’s no surprise that CLD students are underrepresented at the gifted school. 

Here are suggestions to deal with these three problems: 

1.  For decades, excessive paperwork and a limited amount of time to get it done have been an inevitable and unfortunate element of teachers’ jobs. Savvy central office and school administrators have found ways to reduce the load and provide time so teachers don’t feel compelled to work as many hours at home night after night. I recently saw a blog post that offers five ideas for educational leaders to reduce teachers’ workloads (Robertson, 2020).

Even if the amount of paperwork is reduced, some teachers will continue to shortchange students who deserve a spot in the district’s gifted programs and gifted school. Assuming allowances are made for teachers to finish the teacher information forms, those who use the “excessive paperwork” excuse for not satisfactorily completing the forms should be called out for their negligence, and the district’s gifted identification committee or gifted school selection committee should be notified that writeups about the affected applicants are lacking and should not be considered in the selection process. 

2.  According to the district’s 5-year plan, training for prospective gifted school selection committee members includes a review of the characteristics of gifted children. Like I said a few paragraphs ago, “A well-written narrative that aligns with conventional thinking about gifted behaviors can persuade a selection committee that a child deserves to be placed in the district’s gifted program or at the gifted school.” My concern is that committee members—with the characteristics of gifted children fresh in their minds—will overrate students whose narratives incorporate some of the characteristics and underrate students whose narratives don’t contain any.  

The solution is related to suggestion 1 above. Teachers need time to adequately complete the required gifted application forms. They need to have the same training on gifted characteristics that the gifted school selection committee receives, preferably at the beginning of every school year. Some classroom teachers and GRTs will still write better narratives than others, but at least they will all have knowledge of gifted characteristics and behaviors to convey in their narratives. 

3.  The conscious and unconscious racial bias of educators is the most difficult issue of the three to deal with; it is at the heart of the problem of underrepresentation among Black, Latine, and economically disadvantaged students at the gifted school. While the district’s teachers can be required to participate in mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training and professional learning in areas such as implicit bias, cultural competency, and anti-racism—as proposed in Part 2 of this series—it doesn’t mean all of them will change their long-held beliefs. On a more positive note, targeted training has been shown to improve the ability of some teachers to recognize the gifted characteristics of Black and Latine children (American University School of Education, 2021).  

Research has demonstrated that in schools with a significant number of Black teachers, there is a higher proportion of Black children in gifted programs, compared with schools that employ fewer Black teachers (Grissom, Kern, & Rodriguez, 2015; Grissom, Nicholson-Crotty, & Nicholson-Crotty, 2009; Meier & Stewart, 1992; Rocha & Hawes, 2009). Two studies indicated a similar relationship between the presence of Latine teachers and Latine children who receive gifted services (Nicholson-Crotty, Grissom, & Nicholson-Crotty, 2011; Rocha & Hawes, 2009). 

Goal 4 of the district’s current Strategic Framework is “Foster a positive working climate that values and invests in a high-quality, diversified workforce who exemplify the division’s core values.” The Equity Emphasis of this goal is “Place a priority on recruiting, retaining, and promoting a workforce representative of our diverse student population.” Unfortunately, there are no data on the diversity of the district’s employees available to the public, yet I am certain that the teaching workforce is not representative of the diverse student population. Recall that Black students comprise nearly one-fourth of the district’s student population. 

Two recommendations that might lead to an increased number of identified gifted Black and Latine students in the district are below. If the district implements these measures, the number of Black and Latine students who apply for and are accepted to the gifted school might also increase. 

    • The district’s human resources department should invest additional time and effort in recruiting Black educators at job fairs, at colleges and universities (especially HBCUs), and through other means. Making serious changes to promote racial and economic equity in all of the district’s educational programs could be the best way to attract qualified teachers of color. 
    • In Part 2, I recommended that first- and fifth-grade teachers should administer the district’s universal screening test, the NNAT, to their classes because it would free up the district’s gifted assessment specialists for other work. If the district made this change to universal screening, a well-trained cadre of gifted assessment specialists that includes Black and Latine educators could visit elementary schools to assist GRTs and teachers “identify students from underrepresented, underserved, and underresourced populations,” an oft-repeated objective in the district’s 5-year plan. 

Next Up in Part Five 

To date we’ve covered the criteria of achievement test scores (Part 2), ability test scores (Part 3), and teacher information (Part 4). The remaining criteria used by the district of interest to determine whether a student is intellectually gifted are academic achievement, student interview responses, and first-grade problem-based tasks. My next post examines academic achievement, which—for the purposes of getting into the gifted school—is “indicated on the most current report card.”

I hope you have the opportunity to read Part 5. Again, if you have a comment, question, or concern, please write in the “Leave A Comment” box or email me at doug@edjacent.org.    

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 * In a statewide survey of teachers, over half responded that “Less paperwork and regulations to follow” would make their job more satisfying (Badger Institute, 2017). 

** The highest ranked “everyday stressor in the workplace” on a national Quality of Worklife Survey completed by over 30,000 educators was “Time pressure” (American Federation of Teachers & Badass Teachers Association, 2015). 

2 thoughts on “Put Students First. Seek Growth. Be Open to Change. (Part Four)”

  1. I definitely think you bring up some great points here and usual, but one point where I disagree: the removal of the parent recommendation does not just take away the ‘well-educated” parent voice, but ALL parent voice- as a former GRT, one of my greatest joys was working with families who struggled with some of the negative aspects of raising a gifted child without realizing the rewards and gifts. When I sat down with parents to co-write the referral, I learned so much about the non-school version of the child, precious information that helped me (and the parents) see and appreciate the child so much more. I know this was often an unfair balance, but I’d like to see an option that honors the child’s gifts outside of school while still addressing the possible inequities of parent involvement.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Meghan. I’d be fine with parents being allowed to submit additional info about their child if every school had someone like you to help caregivers write narratives. The current process would work better if ALL classroom teachers, GRTs, and other school staff would work with parents of children with gifted potential to ensure that these kids are identified, especially at schools with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students. When I see the nearly 30-point gap between the percent of economically disadvantaged students in the district (43.6%) and the percent of economically disadvantaged students at the gifted school (14.4%), I know that the process has favored and continues to favor the “haves.”

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