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Association of Washington School Principals
Washington Principal | Volume 2– 2021-22
Left out duck.jpg
Left Out By Design
The Referral System for the Highly Gifted Program Through an Equity Lens
Janet L. Kragen
Teacher, Consultant, Advocate, and Author
Editor’s Note: Janet Kragen is a National Board Certified Teacher and taught from 1977 to 2022. Starting in 1983 she specialized in gifted education, working in pull-out models, block classes, and self-contained classes. In addition to being a classroom teacher, she has taught teachers; served on the Executive Board of the Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted (WAETAG); and was a regular contributor to Stories from School. She currently serves on the board of the Coalition for Gifted Education. Learn more at kragen.net.
When was the last time you looked at the demographics for your Highly Capable (HC) program? How well do they align with your district’s demographics? For many districts, there is a disconnect between their HC demographics and the demographics of the district at large. All too often, HC programs skew white and Asian. Who gets left out? To begin with, Black/Indigenous/People of Color (BIPOC). But there are other groups that are left out. Low income. English-Language Learners (ELL). Students with disabilities, including, for example, students on the autism spectrum or students with dyslexia or ADHD. (Students who are HC and also have disabilities are called “twice exceptional.”) Girls can be left out too. There are places where two or three times more boys are identified than girls. THE EXPLANATION Over the years, there’s been a lot of talk about specific tests and how some tests are biased toward some groups. The state addressed the question of using a particular and potentially biased test by saying, “The research literature strongly supports using multiple criteria to identify highly capable students, and therefore, the Legislature does not intend to prescribe a single method.”
The truth is, it’s easier to see outliers — and potentially HC behavior — inside our own group. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, but that tunnel vision denies access to other groups, whether those groups are based on race, class, language group, or disability.
The Legislature went on to “authorize school districts to identify, through the use of multiple, objective criteria, those students most highly capable and eligible to receive accelerated learning and enhanced instruction in the program offered by the district” (RCW 28A.185.020 — emphasis mine). That’s already the law, so your district should already be using multiple, objective criteria to screen students for your HC program. But there’s an insidious little issue that can skew the results no matter how well-designed your testing protocol is. Before you start looking at how students get screened, you need to look at which students get screened. And why.
THE SCREENING PROCESS Far too many districts rely on parents and teachers to be the gatekeepers for the HC programs. They rely on parent and teacher referrals to determine which students ever get screened. In many districts, most students never get screened. I taught in HC programs in Washington state from 1989 to 2022. I worked with probably a dozen principals and almost that many program directors during that time. We could all swap stories with you about pushy HC parents for hours. Parents who were invested in their child’s “giftedness” would move heaven and earth to get them into an HC program. They stayed on top of referral deadlines. They filled out the forms carefully. They often wrote long narrative pieces to accompany the forms. On the other hand, other parents — particularly parents of underrepresented groups — rarely filled out referral forms. In the same way, I served on our district’s Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) for decades. Over the years, we noticed there were teachers who would refer 20-25% of their class every year for the HC program, while other teachers at their school didn’t refer a single student. Ever. I bet the same is true in your district. There’s an even more insidious issue that exacerbates the problem with teacher referrals: White teachers see HC traits more often in white students. The truth is, it’s easier to see outliers — and potentially HC behavior — inside our own group. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, but that tunnel vision denies access to other groups, whether those groups are based on race, class, language group, or disability. Not only that, some teachers assume HC students are highly verbal. They disproportionately recommend their louder students — often boys. They don’t realize that the majority of HC students are introverts! (My self-contained HC classrooms would be a mix of roughly half exuberant, outgoing, highly verbal students and half quiet, thoughtful, introspective students.) THE SOLUTION Stop using parents and teachers as gatekeepers. You can still have adults fill out referral forms. They can be an additional data point for your district’s MDT. But they won’t be the reason some students get screened while others don’t. Instead, use a universal screening, which is designed to identify students for elementary and middle school HC services in an equitable way. (In terms of high school students, the new RCW for academic acceleration for high school students says, “Each school district may include additional eligibility criteria for students to participate in the academic acceleration policy so long as the district criteria does not create inequities among student groups in the advanced course or program.”) How does universal screening work? Start with the data your district already collects on all of your students, for example, SBA scores, iReady, MAP, or STAR assessments. With universal screening, your district’s MDT would look at that same data for all the students in the targeted grade levels, not just a select group referred by a few parents and teachers. While your district could implement a new test to assist with universal screening, it’s not a necessity. Chances are your district is already collecting enough student data to do a universal screening. In my district, the secretary who assisted the HC program director created a spreadsheet each year for the second-grade students and another for the sixth-grade students. It listed the students by name down the left, the various objective criteria we used along the top, and all the students’ scores filled in. (We used STAR, SBA, and Cogat scores, among other things.) Those of us on the MDT could sort by test scores. For elementary students, we could clearly see which students needed math services in their home school, which needed reading services in their home school, and which would most benefit from the district’s self-contained program. For middle school students, we could see which should be in the advanced English/social studies program. (Math students were tested and placed by the math department.) On any given year, my district had 350-400 second-grade students and a few more sixth graders. It took our MDT less than a day to analyze all the data for both grades and make our team’s recommendations. My district started using universal screening in 2000, so it’s not exactly a new idea. I certainly saw a more diverse collection of students in my self-contained classes after we started using universal screening. Currently, the state says districts must prioritize equitable identification of low-income students. Using universal screening not only provides access to equitable identification for low-income students but for all under-represented groups. The Washington Coalition for Gifted Education has made universal screening its top legislative priority this year. The Coalition is in good company. Both the Washington State PTA and the WEA support universal screening. Your district doesn’t need to wait for the Legislature to make universal screening required by law. Your district can start using universal screening now to start making sure the demographics of your HC program better align with the demographics of your district. After all, we all want equity in education, including in Highly Capable programs.
Janet Kragen