A brand-new school year and an approaching autumn mark a time for renewal, recommitment and reflection. I wish your children and teens continuing and new cycles of positively affirming relationships with friends and educators. This school year, I hope your children know both great challenge and great success.
We are back again to the very much-needed public debate about our Gifted and Talented Program within the Davis schools. If you read my columns, it is no secret how I feel as a pediatrician and community activist about labeling some of our children as “gifted,” and, by default, other children as “not gifted.”
These labels, most often conferred on both sets of students in Davis in the third grade by a 45-minute IQ test, follow each student into the junior high tracking system, regardless of how that student has performed or developed in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades. (At Emerson Junior High School, students can participate in the accelerated learners track by GATE identification, or by sixth grade performance or by parent justification.)
We define our children as gifted or not gifted with tests known since their inception in the days of the eugenics movement to be both culturally biased and economically exclusive. This potential for racial, class and linguistic (in reference to “gifted” English learners) discrimination is why experts recommend the use of multiple assessments and, ideally, observations to determine which students need a self-contained classroom or special program to optimally succeed.
The fact that these alternatives to identification are expensive and labor-intensive is moot, unless we will say that we as the Davis community have accepted injustice and racial and class discrimination because it is the least expensive alternative.
The test we use to universally screen students is the OLSAT (Otis Lennon School Abilities Test), an IQ test that, according to its own website, measures neither intelligence nor “giftedness,” but rather “abilities that relate to success in school.” We then allow some of our children to be arbitrarily awarded the “gifted” label by truly arbitrary percentile ranking or cutoff, and then to be extracted to a physically segregated educational experience, if desired.
In a fascinating twist, some Davis children are defined as possessing “risk factors” (district term) for not being identified as “gifted” within Davis schools. I think the notion of “risk factors” is fascinating because it implies that something is deficient in children’s families or culture. I am not certain that we understand as a community that it is the test (OLSAT and other IQ tests) and not the children or their families or cultures that have been demonstrated to be deficient.
To say we compensate for this, the district has a search and serve policy, wherein students not expected to do as well on the OLSAT are administered the TONI IQ test, thought to be less culturally biased against English language learners and African-American and Latino children.
The recent history of GATE identification in Davis has been rife with race, class and linguistic inequality, artificially created and accepted by us as a community. That the district is now being held legally accountable for these inequities in its process of identifying and labeling children as gifted (or not) makes it a good time to collectively think about what we are doing and paying for in local our public education.
Attorney David Meyers has filed a complaint against the Davis school district on behalf of student John Doe, for the discriminatory practice of ranking those who were administered the alternative TONI test lower than those students who scored at the same percentile on the OLSAT test.
References (also available from Jann Murray-García)
Sacramento State education professor David Jelinek and others, “New Constructs in Giftedness,” and “DJUSD GATE Evaluation Report,” 2005, available online.
Barry Hymer, “Gifted and Talented: Time To Rethink?” Teaching Expertise, 2005
James Borland, “The Construct of Giftedness,” Peabody Journal of Education, 1997
Nicholas Lemann, “The Big Test: The History of the American Meritocracy” (book)
The district’s own GATE program evaluation by an outside expert (see Jelinek report in box) advises to “convert the scores of dissimilar assessments (different tests) into T-scores” to come up with a district ranking for GATE-identified student enrollment in self-contained programs in several Davis schools.
Yet, those students administered the TONI are ranked lower than other students with the same percentile ranking on the OLSAT. This makes this group of students more likely than the OLSAT kids with the same score to be put on waiting lists for the self-contained program, and thus to not be able to attend their neighborhood GATE school.
The district also continues to allow parents to pay to have their children privately tested by outside psychologists, instead of accepting the district’s testing process. If any student is privately tested, then all students should be. The district should pay for all students who want to be privately tested, in my opinion, and not at Sacramento State, at that institution’s convenience and other dictates.
The proportion of white and Asian students and students from high socioeconomic families who qualify for GATE by private testing is three times as high as the proportion of black, Latino and poor families who were awarded the GATE label by private testing. This remained true for the 2010-11 school year, the first year district officials required private psychologists to notify the district when they tested a student, so students would be privately tested only once.
This is a mess we have to figure out. It is clear that our definitions and process of defining and identifying and labeling and segregating students as “gifted” are not scientifically neutral and certainly not without the kinds of injustice that puts our district at legal liability. We need to do the soul-searching about the anxiety of some of us in securing extra advantage for our children, for purchasing that label, that status, for buying automatic admission to a junior high school curricular track, and ultimately for the impact that differential status has on our entire community of impressionable, developing minds.
Some kids do need an accelerated program, and other prodigies an alternative to a traditional classroom, but isn’t each child of yours gifted? It’s not the same as the elective activity of a sport or music endeavor. These are school communities that our children are legally mandated to attend, for half their waking hours, that together we create unequal and stratified to both their peril and ours.
— Jann Murray-García, M.D., M.P.H., is a Davis parent and pediatrician. She shares this monthly column with Jonathan London. Reach her at email@example.com