GATE is good for all students

By Hemant Bhargava

Our public schools must meet the educational needs of all our children. The self-contained GATE program in Davis, which places gifted and talented children into separate classrooms, actually helps all students both GATE and non-GATE. By reducing within-classroom disparities in both GATE and non-GATE classes, self-contained GATE makes it easier to configure instruction to individual students’ needs. That makes teaching more effective. By taking out the students at the top extreme of a classroom, GATE helps creates stars in every classroom.

I derived this conclusion by analyzing STAR test scores available from the California Department of Education. I compared the Davis school district against Lafayette, which essentially eliminated self-contained GATE in 2009, mixing GATE and non-GATE children into the same classroom. To broaden the analysis, I also evaluated additional districts in Northern California: Rocklin, like Davis, has a self-contained GATE program, while Buckeye, Fremont and Palo Alto resemble Lafayette’s mixed classroom approach.

I looked at STAR data for English language arts and math, between grades 2 and 6. The results are striking and consistent. From second to sixth grade, Davis and Rocklin move a much greater percentage of students into the highest tier of students who are rated as “advanced.” To be sure, Lafayette, Buckeye, Fremont and Palo Alto started the race ahead, with greater percentage of second-graders in the advanced tier than Davis and Rocklin. But this metric merely reflects their richer natural endowment of elementary school children.

Second-graders are what the districts are given, not what their educational approach has shaped. The greater progress that Davis and Rocklin make between grades 2 and 6 is clear evidence that their self-contained GATE is more effective at enhancing students’ learning and academic achievement.

Davis and Rocklin’s statewide rank (among nearly 900 districts, based on the English language arts percentage “advanced” category, leapt up 134 and 129 points, respectively, between grades 2 and 6. Compare this with 50, minus 9, 12 and minus 5 for the mixed-classroom districts. The self-contained GATE districts are unambiguously more effective. The results are similar for math. The comparative performance is even better in 2010 and 2011.

Finally, these gains do not come at any cost at the lowest levels. All six districts placed only 0-1 percent of children into the “far below basic” tier by grade 6, after starting grade 2 at about 4-5 percent (for Davis and Rocklin) and 2 percent (for the rest).

What does this tell us about the relative impact of self-contained vs. mixed classroom models? Since GATE is highly selective (it picks students in the top 2 to 6 percentile of their nationwide peers), GATE students are already in the advanced bracket in second grade, which comprises roughly 28 percent of all California children. Therefore, the increase in percentage of advanced scorers at grade 6 comes from one source: children not in GATE. What my findings show is that districts with self-contained GATE propel a greater percentage of children into the advanced tier by grade 6 than districts where all children learn in a mixed environment.

This striking improvement in test results in our neighborhood schools in Davis calls into question the notion that GATE students mixed into a regular classroom necessarily raise the academic achievements of other non-GATE students. But even stronger evidence on this front comes from Lafayette’s (and Palo Alto’s) own performance back in 2003, when both districts employed self-contained GATE. Davis’ second-grade scores, then, were nearly identical to Lafayette and Palo Alto’s. And the same at grade 6. With a similar natural endowment and a similar educational model, they all achieved comparable progress!

The before-after comparison tells a remarkable story: Lafayette and Palo Alto were performing better under a self-contained GATE approach. Their performance drop in 2012 is on account of their switch away from self-contained GATE.

Equal education for all children is a worthy objective. But one-size-fits-all education implies neither equal opportunity nor equal outcome. We should be wary of changing our self-contained GATE program without proof that alternatives will produce the same or better results.

— Hemant Bhargava is a Davis parent.

Special to The Enterprise

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