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

Welcome back to my blog series. In Part 1, I explained that the series is an update to my June 2021 article, Promoting Privilege: Selecting Students for a Public Gifted School, a research-based analysis of reasons that Black, Latine, and economically disadvantaged students are grossly underrepresented at a large school district’s state-of-the-art gifted school. Before any student can be considered for admission to the school, they must be identified as intellectually gifted. 

Part 2 examined universal screening, a process that theoretically gives all students an equal chance of being identified as a candidate for gifted services. Like other methods used by the district to identify gifted students, the district’s current screening method—administering a nonverbal test to all first- and fifth-grade students—contributes to the gifted school’s longstanding tradition of putting some students first. Those students are mostly White and Asian students from economically advantaged families. (“Put Students First” is the district’s initial core value.) 

In this third part, I delve into what happens after a parent or guardian submits an application for their child to undergo further testing to determine if they can be labeled intellectually gifted per the district’s criteria. Although parents of students who score in the 90th percentile or higher on the screening test are automatically contacted by their school’s gifted resource teacher (GRT) to discuss the application process, applying is not limited to high-scoring students on the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT). The gifted page on the district’s website states, “If you student [sic] does not score in the 90th percentile or higher, you may still complete an online application for gifted services.” 

The gifted page also contains videos, including an informational parent video titled Gifted 2.0. The title implies that gifted identification and services in the district are somehow superior or more advanced than before. As the video’s narrator explains: 

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. [The district] has begun updating its gifted program by working with these experts to identify ways in which updating the gifted identification and [gifted school] selection process would reach a greater amount [sic] of students who may benefit from gifted services. 

The district’s leaders are well aware that their methods of identifying gifted students and selecting students for its gifted school are obsolete; the words “update,” “updates,” “updated,” and “updating” are used 10 times in the short video, far more times than the number of noteworthy updates to the gifted program. 

Additionally, the “nationally renowned gifted education experts” mentioned in the video are not named. I searched the district’s website and was unable to find out who they are. In contrast, when I wrote my 2021 journal article, I communicated with Scott Peters and Thomas Hébert, two nationally recognized scholars in the field of gifted education. Dr. Peters is the Association Editor for the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) and Dr. Hébert is an NAGC award-winning Professor of Gifted and Talented Education who taught at the University of Georgia’s Mary Frances Early College of Education while I was working on my doctorate. 

The advice that Dr. Peters and Dr. Hébert gave me—along with information from over 90 academic sources cited in the article—confirmed my belief that the district must seek growth and be open to change before it can proclaim publicly that it employs “the most effective, current, and equitable practices in gifted identification.” (“Seek Growth” and “Be Open to Change” are the district’s second and third core values.) It looks like we will need to wait for Gifted 3.0 before the district fully addresses the underrepresentation of Black, Latine, and economically disadvantaged students at its prestigious gifted school.  

Below are pie charts that illustrate the differences between the overall racial/ethnic makeup of students in the district and the racial/ethnic composition of the gifted school’s student body during the 2021-2022 school year. There is also a gap of nearly 30% between the representation of economically disadvantaged students in the district and at the school.  

The Trouble With Testing

The district’s website explains that “Once a student has been tested, data are compiled and forwarded to an identification and placement committee that determines eligibility for gifted services.” Most applicants for gifted services have already taken the NNAT, the screening assessment described in Part 2 of this blog series, so the next test that prospective gifted students are required to take is the Cognitive Abilities Test, or CogAT.  

I’m not going to discuss the CogAT at length. The test comprises three batteries—Verbal, Quantitative, and Nonverbal—and it takes 90 to 135 minutes to administer the entire multiple-choice test. According to the publisher, Riverside Insights, “CogAT makes it happen by measuring abilities across the symbol systems that are most highly correlated with fluid reasoning, problem solving, and success in school” (2022). If you’re interested in finding out more about the CogAT, read pages 8-10 of my article. Better yet, go to TestingMom.com’s CogAT Test [sic] page and sign up for 100 free questions.   

Despite the publisher’s claims, CogAT does not “make it happen” for many students. The district’s practice of administering the CogAT to applicants for gifted services, mostly first and fifth graders, contributes to the underrepresentation of certain identity groups in its gifted program and gifted school, something I explained in a blog post last July

The CogAT and other tests that purportedly measure children’s intellectual ability… are not free of culture bias either. Even David Lohman, the developer of the last three forms of the CogAT reported that “[CogAT] Form 7 tests substantially reduce but do not eliminate group differences” (2011, slide 28). Further, both Lohman (2006) and Jack Naglieri, the creator of the NNAT, have said that tests with verbal and math components (e.g., CogAT, WISC) measure achievement along with ability, meaning the tests “can become a barrier to smart children who do not have adequate academic skills…. The disadvantage of such tests outweighs any advantages, and the failure to include diverse populations [in gifted programs] because of limited academic skills can be described as a social injustice” (2008, p. 85). 

Even slightly lower CogAT scores prevent kids who haven’t had the same educational benefits that other kids have had from being accepted to the district’s exclusive gifted school. Those benefits include attending better schools with strong financial support from the community. Apart from schooling, many students who live in economically disadvantaged areas face obstacles that are not as common in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. A report from the Economic Policy Institute, Five Social Disadvantages That Depress Student Performance: Why Schools Alone Can’t Close Achievement Gaps, lists the main challenges for economically disadvantaged children, some of which are interrelated: 

  • parenting practices that impede children’s intellectual and behavioral development 
  • single parenthood 
  • parents’ irregular work schedules 
  • inadequate access to primary and preventive health care 
  • exposure to absorption of lead in the blood  (Morsy & Rothstein, 2015

It’s no wonder that economically advantaged White and Asian students are overrepresented in gifted programs across the US. 

Then There’s Test Anxiety…

Over one-third of American schoolchildren have experienced some form of test anxiety during their school careers (Methia, 2004). More recent research using the Children’s Test Anxiety Scale with students in grades 3-5 reported that 10% have “clinically impairing test anxiety” (Segool et al., 2013). In our test-obsessed schools—an unfortunate legacy of No Child Left Behind—test anxiety is prevalent in every demographic group; however, studies indicate that Black students experience higher levels of test anxiety than do White students (e.g., Hembree, 1988; Wren & Benson, 2004; Carter, Williams, & Silverman, 2008). 

A contributing factor to debilitating test anxiety among African American students is known as stereotype threat, “a predicament that can beset the members of any group about whom negative stereotypes exist” (Steele & Aronson, 1995). For many Black students, the threat can be induced by taking a test that is supposed to measure intellectual ability – for example, the CogAT. Stereotype threat is more intense for students who place greater value on the results of the test (Wasserberg, 2014), which means the implications for gifted young Black students seeking validation of their giftedness are significant. 

…And Inequitable Test Prep

In Part 2, I explained that many parents in the district prepare their children for universal screening by having them practice on sample NNAT tests. Comprehensive test preparation materials for most standardized tests are available for purchase online. Parents who want to give their kids an extra advantage in the gifted identification process can also buy CogAT test prep at Amazon, TestingMom, TestPrep-Online, or any number of other sites. 

No one can blame parents for wanting the best education possible for their child, but I believe it is patently unfair that some students make the cut at the gifted school because of extracurricular CogAT practice while some students are not afforded the same opportunities. Once again, I pose this question: Why does the district turn a blind eye to the fact that some students’ scores are inflated because they practiced for the test? 

Three Recommendations

1. All elementary school students and their caregivers should be given information about accessing practice tests. 

As I said in last week’s post with regards to inequitable test prep, “It doesn’t matter if students practice for the test; it does matter if some kids perform better than others on the test due to inequitable access to test prep materials.” Taking this suggestion one step further, the district could obtain free or low-cost CogAT practice materials and give them to students who want to prepare for gifted testing. 

2. Dealing with test anxiety is not as easy.

One reason children become extremely anxious about taking standardized tests is their fear of failure. For many students, the cause of this fear can be traced back to the overemphasis that educators and parents place on standardized test results. Adults may not realize that making constant references to the end-of-year test can be counterproductive. Although testing pep rallies are fun and teacher-produced music videos that tell students to “Rock the Test” might be good for staff morale—God knows educators need all the morale boosters they can get—they send the message to every kid in the school that the test is the be-all and end-all of their education. 

Most teachers understand that the test scores of children with severe test anxiety do not reflect their intellectual abilities. The district’s gifted education leaders need to recognize this and encourage classroom teachers and GRTs to make a note on the gifted applications of students who are overly anxious about taking tests. If first- and fifth-grade teachers are allowed to administer the gifted screening test to their classes, as I recommended in my previous post, they will be more likely to observe discernible, often unusual behaviors of their test-anxious students, as I did during 12 years of giving standardized tests to my first and fifth graders.

I plan to add a piece to the Edjacent blog on treating children’s test anxiety before the 2022-2023 school year begins. If you’re interested in receiving notifications about new blog posts, now is a good time to go here and enter your email address. 

3. Explore the practice of using local norms for selection and placement of gifted students.

This recommendation comes verbatim from pages 8 and 52 of the district’s  Local Plan for the Education of the Gifted 2020-2025. In last week’s post, I alluded to this lengthy document that state law requires the district to create and submit to the Virginia Department of Education. The 5-year plan includes a bevy of goals, objectives, procedures, policies, assurances, descriptions, evidence, and activities. Under the broad category of Identification, the district’s first objective is to “Research, identify, and implement assessment measures to identify students from underrepresented, underserved, and underresourced populations.” The seventh activity under this objective is “Explore the practice of using local norms for selection and placement of gifted students at [the gifted school].” 

Local norms, as described by Scott Peters and his coauthors, refers to “ranked performance within the school building…. The reference group for the gifted identification process is the student’s same-grade peers within a given building” (2019). The rationale for using local norms was expressed a decade ago by the CogAT’s primary author: “inferences about ability require comparison of an individual’s performance with the performance of others who have had a similar opportunity to learn” (Lohman & Gambrell, 2012). 

Assuming the district of interest does adopt local norms, the CogAT and NNAT scores of students who apply for admission to the gifted school would be compared with a local (i.e., schoolwide) sample of students instead of with a *national sample, which is what the district currently does when applicants are being considered for admission to the gifted school. The desired result of using local norms is that the gifted school would start to have more equitable representation of Black, Latine, and economically disadvantaged gifted students from across the district.

Rumor has it that, in accordance with its 5-year plan for gifted education, the district has actually begun exploring the practice of using local norms. Readers who have knowledge of this are encouraged to share relevant information in the comments box below. Let’s hope the district’s leaders don’t wait until 2025 to make this much-needed update!

Next Up in Part Four 

In Parts 2 and 3 of this blog series, we covered achievement test scores (CogAT) and ability test scores (NNAT), two of the multiple criteria that the district of interest uses to determine whether or not a student is intellectually gifted. A full list of the criteria appears on the district’s website: 

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

Next time we’ll look at academic achievement and teacher information. As always, I invite you to comment, ask questions, and/or state your concerns in the “Leave A Comment” box. You can also email me at doug@edjacent.org.   

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*This is why standardized tests like the CogAT and NNAT are called nationally normed tests. More about national norms and local norms here.

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