In recent months, we have heard the large urban districts trumpet their successes in hitting AYP and achieving the designation “proficient.” Scores in NYC Public Schools have soared. Year One of the Rhee Experiment in Washington, DC posted proficiency numbers few ever expected. And similar data has been seen in similar districts throughout the nation.
Some critics questioned the standards used to measure proficiency in the first place. Did we drop the bar to achieve AYP? Are 2007 measures as strong as they were in, say, 2005? In states like Maryland and cities like NYC, one could honestly raise the issue. State and district standards have “evolved” in the NCLB era, and many of those evolutions have resulted in improved student achievement. Students may not know more today, but they are more proficient, based on assessments.
So what’s the big deal? Isn’t our goal to get all students proficient by any means necessary? After all, we promised 100% proficiency in math, reading, and science by 2014. We have to get there by any means necessary.
For years, the flip side of NCLB proficiency has been the issue of “gifted & talented.” We have heard how G&T students have been punished by NCLB, as teacher attention and school resources are focused on those at risk and those hovering around the proficient mark. At times, you’d even think NCLB was awarding new MacBooks to at-risk students, while leaving gifted kids to persevere with yellowed paper with chunks of wood still floating in it.
Perhaps that’s why Eduflack was taken aback yesterday by an article in the Washington Examiner, looking at the G&T issue in DC’s suburban schools. Perhaps I am naive. I’ve long thought that G&T was an elite designation. Few students received the label, either due to limited resources to act with or the very real fact that few students are truly gifted.
The Examiner paints a very different picture, though. At Bethesda, MD’s Westbrook Elementary School, for example, 87% of second graders have been designated G&T. Across Montgomery County (home to Westbrook), 39% of second graders are G&T. Fifty-two percent of them are white, 23% Asian, 13% Black, and 12% Hispanic.
In Fairfax County, VA, 34% of second graders earned the designation. The breakdowns are similar — 53% white, 23% Asian, 7% Black, 10% Hispanic, and 7% multiracial.
I’m not saying there are not strong students in Montgomery or Fairfax Counties. Students there and in other suburban districts (as well as in urban and rural districts) work hard and achieve. But do we honestly believe that a third of ALL second graders are truly G&T?
Of course not. The problem, though, is our national commitment to proficiency. It seems that more and more districts are designating students as gifted if they perform above grade level on assessments. Demonstrate your proficiency, and you must be gifted, right?
It is an odd line of thinking. On a typical grading scale, we can assume “proficient” comes from earning a C. So now, even those B-minus students are qualifying as gifted and talented. And we all pat ourselves on the back for the achievement.
Parents of truly gifted students would say such a policy is further harming their children and denying them the educational resources they need to reach their full potential. Advocates for the new era of G&T designation would say we are challenging more students, instilling a new sense of hope and optimism in students who were previously just seen as average. And those worrying about failing schools and drop-out factories would say we are just missing the point. All may be right, but all are missing the larger point.
I’m all for acceleration in the classroom and more rigorous classes and programs for all students — not just the top tier. Equipped with the right learning skills, all students should be pushed to study more advanced materials. And I believe none of us should ever settle for mere “proficiency.”
But 34% G&T rates are the equivalent of every child winning a trophy, regardless of who actually won. If a G&T designation isn’t limited to those who are truly outstanding among the top students, then the designation simply loses all meaning whatsoever. We might as well just assign students colors, with every student performing grade level earning a purple. It holds the same value.