One of the most rewarding aspects of writing a column like this is the readership that takes the time and trouble to both read the column and delve deeper into the issues. A perfect example is the comment I received regarding this column (please scroll down to the end of the column to read the comment). The commenter had taken the time and trouble to research the issue in greater detail. Perhaps, I should lament the fact that the commenter anticipates the content one of my future columns. I don’t. Instead, I would urge those among you with an abiding desire to preserve options for our nation’s advanced learners, those gifted and talented children, as Maryland law references them, to embrace knowledgeable advocacy and insist on openness.
Gifted and talented education has been under attack for its lack of diversity, specifically the under representation of blacks and Hispanics. It also suffered from accusations of elitism. Preserving options for our nation’s most academically able students requires a pragmatic approach. For example, I have long advocated that it is the services that matter, not the label (please also see here). With this philosophy in mind, in 2007, I proposed a Parent Letter, to communicate the results of screening for gifted and talented education. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), to its credit, has adopted a form of this letter (the copy of the letter available at this link was obtained via a Maryland Public Information Act request). The letter, in the form I proposed, is a blueprint for every child’s success.
Every child, based on the administered tests and academic record of the prior years, and teacher observations, is recommended a specific scope and sequence of educational options. No one is excluded. Those in dire need of remedial services will be recommended the appropriate interventions; the advanced learner will be recommended suitably advanced classes. The Parent Letter is far more finely nuanced than the ubiquitous label. Furthermore, it leaves the final decision of accepting the recommendations to the parent.
Pragmatists must wrestle with the reality that there will always be some who would like to have a loophole to overrule the recommendations of the Letter and receive advanced services, even if the child’s academic record cannot justify such a placement. Take a look at the graphic that accompanies this column (please click to enlarge). It is excerpted from a document distributed to a select group of parents in Montgomery County, members of the AEI Advisory Committee, and obtained via a MPIA request (parts were redacted by MCPS). The data references information for middle school students, disaggregated by their elementary feeder schools.
On Measures of Academic Progress in Reading (Map-R), an independently designed, computer adaptive test, less than 10% of students from all feeder schools scored in the “Advanced” range, with one notable exception of 23.8%. Yet, the same graphic shows, much larger percentages of those students were in Honors English. For example, 48.9% of elementary school students, from a specific school, were in Honors English, even though 4.4% of the same population scored “advanced” on Map-R. The same data graphically demonstrates the dismal standards of state tests. Of the cohort in which 4.4% scored “Advanced” on Map-R, 51.1% scored “Advanced” on MSA Reading. Clearly, Honors English is a heterogeneous class.
The most important conclusion one can take away from the data, is that MCPS has access to multiple data points that would make it possible to fine tune academic recommendations with exquisite precision. The second, is the inescapable value of transparency in driving any debate on academics. This data, in the hands of a select few, without seeing daylight, could not have helped drive meaningful change.
Gifted and talented education must embrace openness and accountability, whether required by statute or not.
Author’s note: Typos were corrected.