When talking about gifted and talented (G&T) education, it is important to consider the needs of vulnerable students, acknowledge the uncertainty of the impact and the opportunity gaps that exist between groups of students, and recognize the ambiguity that exists about best practices.
Gifted and talented placement practices are often deeply rooted in district tradition. If we, as educators and policymakers, face the hard truth, many of those practices were born from attempts to appease one group of stakeholders or another. Traditions often thrive at the expense of equity.
This is a story of struggling to solve a hard truth; of inspiration from partner districts; of crisis and urgency converging to create inspiration and motivation, and of an audacious plan by Howell Township Public Schools (HTPS) to provide more equitable access to enriched learning for all students in our pre-K-8 school district.
An Access Problem For several years, we noticed a predictability of academic placement outcomes based on ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Black and brown students were disproportionately less likely to be placed in G&T, and predictably, not likely at all to be placed if they came from families with challenged economic means.
Clearly, such unintended outcomes are not acceptable. The Howell superintendent, Joseph Isola, has worked strategically to promote a districtwide “beyond compliance” mindset. That mindset served as fertile ground for taking bold action to address these issues. The use of various measures, including holistic assessments, collapsed the many hurdles and single-skill focused placement practices of the past. A reimagined placement process increased opportunities for students who had traditionally been unrecognized by prequalifications. Lastly, blending team-based instruction with personalized enrichment pathways expanded the learning opportunities for students who were often overlooked and unnecessarily excluded from enrichment experiences.
Programming for gifted education presents many complexities, from scheduling to staffing. With the enactment of the Strengthening Gifted and Talented Education Act on Jan. 13, 2020, districts were asked to evaluate not only the identification process for students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade, but also the programming offered.
In HTPS, K-3 classroom programs steeped in purposeful play are offered to enrich students, with the addition of enrichment cluster groups beginning in grade 2. In grades 4-5, in addition to the enrichment cluster groups, an accelerated cohort program is introduced for content areas. In grades 4-8, there was a specific emphasis on mathematics acceleration, which excluded many students due to all-or-none placement practices. Students in the accelerated program remained in the same cohort for their entire middle school experience, completing the core content areas having had limited interactions with peers outside the program. This created an insular learning experience and inhibited the academically social exchange that benefits all student learning.
During the district’s strategic planning process, students were invited to provide feedback on the student experience. It was then that we realized our gifted and talented program needed to be revised to meet the needs of not only the students who were participating, but also the needs of students who were not. After reflecting on the students’ perspectives, we set out to gain feedback from the teachers of the gifted and talented program in the middle schools.
Enhancing the Program The Howell staff used a discussion protocol developed by the School Reform Initiativecalled the “Back to the Future protocol.” Through those discussions, we were able to identify the necessary changes that would enhance the enriched and accelerated program. Based on the exploratory sessions, topics such as limited flexibility in entering or exiting the program, mathematics leading the identification process, and pressure among students to out-perform one another were just a few issues that dominated the discussion. Our revision checklist emerged with the following considerations: gifted students are not a homogeneous group with the same learning needs; gifted students are particularly vulnerable to underachievement and social-emotional difficulties; and the recognition that a need existed for a quality curriculum grounded in theory and research.
Assessing the curriculum was the next step in our evaluation of the middle school gifted and talented program. The existing acceleration opportunities in mathematics allowed students to complete two levels of high school mathematics by grade eight. Previously science and social studies enriched the students through deeper discussions and more complex projects.
Now, our recent revisions engage students in divergent thinking through problem-based learning, design-thinking challenges, and authentic community-based learning experiences. A new language arts course titled “Critical and Creative Literacies” was written to emphasize greater depth and complexity of study, focusing on generating and evaluating knowledge, seeking possibilities, considering alternatives, and understanding perspectives. Students can be placed in, transition into, or exit out of any of these courses without having to be accepted into the full gifted program. This flexibility allows students to personalize their learning in ways that more deeply engage their passions and optimize their experiences.
Years of research reveals a need to examine how traditionally underserved groups are identified for participation in gifted educational programming. Students of poverty are more likely to be underrepresented in gifted programs than black or Latino students, although both of those groups are also less likely to be identified as gifted than white students who do not receive free and reduced-price lunch. Predictably, an examination of our middle school gifted programs in Howell Township, begun in 2019, revealed similar underrepresentation of students of poverty and African American students.
During the 2018-2019 school year, 16.4% of the total HTPS student population qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, while only 3.2% of the students participating in middle school gifted programming qualified for the same. It was apparent that our existing identification process inadvertently placed hurdles in the path of certain populations of students, preventing them from accessing gifted programming. While the use of multiple criteria is frequently cited as a best practice for identifying all gifted students, it is of particular importance when identifying gifted minority students, students of poverty, and culturally diverse students. The use of achievement tests to screen students before being invited to take an aptitude test had clouded our ability to develop a comprehensive understanding of each student’s talents and abilities.
Inspiration from Another District During NJDOE’s first ever Equity Conference, the Long Branch Public Schools shared work they had undertaken surrounding equity and gifted education. Inspired by Long Branch’s process, we resolved and prepared to administer the aptitude test to all incoming fourth- and sixth-grade students in the spring of 2020, hoping that casting a wider net would yield more students typically missed by traditional placement processes. Making that assessment a universal experience represented a significant shift in actionable equity changes.
Adapting During the Pandemic With just a few weeks to go before universally administering the SAGES aptitude test to all third and fifth grade classes, schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only were we unable to offer a universal screening process, we could not use the SAGES at all. As we worked through our disappointment, we wistfully—almost idealistically—wondered if we could dispense with the paper and pencil test. Could we assess kids’ interactions? Would that tell us something we do not already know? Would doing so allow us to address our equity challenges?
“Wistful” became “inspired” and “idealistic” became “enacted.” We explored research suggesting that the inclusion of nontraditional assessment measures, such as portfolios and performance tasks, holds great promise for identifying traditionally underrepresented students for participation in gifted programs. A study conducted of 30,526 students in South Carolina found that performance tasks identified a greater percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, a greater percentage of African-American students, and a greater percentage of female students than traditional methods. Such research not only proved that this performance task idea was possible, it showed that using this type of measure would provide more equitable enrichment experiences for students.
We developed our performance task with the goal of creating a more comprehensive picture of the “whole child,” with a particular focus on the child’s talents and abilities. These assessments would present students with challenging open-ended problems, placing an emphasis on the solution process, rather than whether or not the student can quickly arrive at the right answer. We also developed a rubric for scoring the performance assessment. It measured behaviors such as collaboration, critical thinking, and risk-taking, and was informed by our district’s efforts in the areas of social-emotional wellness and personalized learning.
The crisis of the pandemic offered us a technological solution previously not available. It also provided clarity of thought. Because the traditional assessment method wasn’t available, it forced us to consider innovative alternatives. The live performance task, given in the early weeks of New Jersey’s quarantine, was delivered via telecommunications. In one day, the assessments were given to over 200 students, from the comfort of their own homes. After administering the performance task to small groups of students, we convened a committee to review each student’s full profile, including achievement scores, performance assessment rubrics, and teacher and parent recommendations.
As research had suggested, the adjustments made to our gifted program and identification process resulted in greater representation of diverse groups in the pool of students recommended for participation in G&T programming. For the 2020-2021 school year, students receiving free and reduced-price lunch comprise 7% of the sixth-grade students identified for placement in these courses. That is more than double the percentage of students from low socioeconomic households participating during the 2018-2019 school year.
We know there is still work to do. In fact, we are not convinced that the work in this area will ever actually be ‘done.’
Because equity issues are often hidden within traditions, and traditions are easy habits to fall back into, scaffolds to continue and strengthen equity awareness and remediating actions must be in place. The next steps for reimagining gifted education in Howell Township Public Schools include expanding these more inclusive identification and placement opportunities into the primary grades while continuing the program progression through the middle school grades, continuing professional learning opportunities for staff in the areas of enrichment education and culturally proficient practices, and exploring the addition of more robust elective offerings.