The problem’s in the testing

In the Sunday forum article “Dubious legal advice drove lottery,” Carlton Larson lamented the use of a lottery to select GATE-qualified students for the limited seats available in self-contained GATE classes. Larson, a law school professor, contended the district could and should select students based solely on merit, i.e., test scores.

Larson compared admission to the GATE program to tryouts for first-chair violin in the school orchestra, or for starting quarterback for the varsity football team. His argument is premised on the notion that 1) there is a prize to be won, and 2) the best students should win that prize based on IQ tests. I think these premises are flawed.

As to the first assumption, self-contained GATE has never been promoted as a prize. It is justified by the idea that GATE-qualified students “learn differently” from other students and need to be segregated to obtain specialized instruction. I haven’t seen evidence that this truly is necessary, but that is the justification. To consider self-contained GATE classes to be a prize for those third-graders who score highest on an IQ test seems to miss the point.

But even if the program is intended to address the “special needs” of a few bright kids, it is important to note that nearly 30 percent of the district’s third-graders are GATE-qualified each year. It is difficult to imagine that so many students need specialized, segregated instruction, or that such segregation is healthy for the schools as a whole.

The second assumption, that IQ testing clearly identifies deserving students, is also questionable. The majority of this year’s GATE third-graders, 112 out of 190, are identified as being in the 99th percentile. Only 15 are found at the 97th percentile and 23 at the 96th percentile. Even fewer are found at the 95th and 94th percentiles. These numbers do not resemble a bell curve.

But most striking is the fact that only 22 of those 112 in the 99th percentile were identified in the initial round of universal testing using the OLSAT. The balance of the kids were identified in a second round of one-on-one tests administered by the school district GATE administrator or from private testing. Third-graders in Davis may be smart, but it seems doubtful that 17 percent of them are in the 99th percentile of learners, especially when the first round of OLSAT testing only showed only 3 percent scoring at this high level.

Admission to the GATE program is problematic.  But the problem is in the testing, not the lottery.

Craig Lundgren

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