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'No Child' Law May Slight The Gifted, Experts Say

Sheila Etzkorn works with Immanuel Sagastume, left, Sendy Alvarenga and Tony Lizama in a gifted class at New Hampshire Estates Elementary. (Photo: Susan Biddle/Post)

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007

Some scholars are joining parent advocates in questioning whether the education law No Child Left Behind, with its goal of universal academic proficiency, has had the unintended consequence of diverting resources and attention from the gifted.

Proponents of gifted education have forever complained of institutional neglect. Public schools, they say, pitch lessons to the broad middle group of students at the expense of those working beyond their assigned grade. Now, under the federal mandate, schools are trained on an even narrower group: students on the "bubble" between success and failure on statewide tests.

Teachers struggling to meet the law's annual proficiency goals have little incentive, critics say, to teach students who will meet those goals however they are taught.

"Because it's all about bringing people up to that minimum level of performance, we've ignored those high-ability learners," said Nancy Green, executive director of the District-based National Association for Gifted Children. "We don't even have a test that measures their abilities."

A study published last month by two University of Chicago economists, analyzing fifth-grade test scores in the Chicago public schools before and after enactment of the law in 2002, found that performance rose consistently for all but the most and least advanced students.

"We don't find any evidence that the gifted kids are harmed," said Chicago economist Derek A. Neal. "But they are certainly right, the gifted advocates, if they claim there is no evidence that No Child Left Behind is helping the gifted."

Giftedness is a catchall term for children with abilities beyond their years. Students in the Washington region are generally screened in grade two, identified by grade three and competing for slots in specialized magnet programs by the upper elementary grades.

Local debate about gifted education centers on the concept of "differentiation," an education buzzword that describes how teachers, particularly in the elementary grades, are supposed to serve students of mixed abilities in a single classroom.

In recent years, school systems have gradually embraced the notion that all students, including the gifted, should study in regular classrooms. Alternatives, such as putting gifted children in separate classrooms or schools, or pulling them from regular classes for bursts of enrichment, are widely rejected as undemocratic.

"Gifted education is not something that should be done by another teacher down the hall; it should be done by every teacher in every classroom," said Marty Creel, who oversees gifted education -- and works with a particularly vocal community of parent advocates -- in Montgomery County.

Regional education leaders point to the success of their school systems as a whole, and to the region's superior Advanced Placement programs, as evidence that all children are learning and that gifted education and No Child Left Behind can coexist. Test scores are up. Expansive, well-funded gifted programs in Montgomery and Fairfax enjoy national reputations. Complaints, they say, come from a disaffected few.

"The truth is that we're showing a lot of success with the method that we're using," Creel said.


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