What to Do With Gifted Students?

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008; 9:22 PM

I received a letter a few weeks ago from a mother in Prince William County, home to one of the Washington area's big suburban school systems. It starkly captured the parental frustration at the heart of the national debate over what to do with very gifted students. I ran her letter, with a short response, in my weekly Post column, "Extra Credit," in which I answer reader mail. That column produced so many letters that I decided to lay out the debate in this column, using the limitless space of the Internet. I have not been very sympathetic with parents of gifted kids. Some of the reaction below echoes things I have said. But I find it difficult to justify forcing Nancy Klimavicz's son to spend valuable time on busywork. If anyone has any good way out of this impasse, e-mail me at mathewsj@washpost.com.

Dear Extra Credit:

I've started this letter many times over the past several months. After my gifted son received rejections from Virginia Tech, James Madison University and William and Mary, I figured it's time to warn other parents. If you have a very bright student, home-school him.

My son was reading a college-level book in third grade when the gifted education specialist recommended just that. Academically, we figured he'd learn and grow regardless of the environment, but his weakness was social interaction with his peers. We believed childhood should include high school sports teams and clubs, and we remembered being influenced by one or two teachers who were passionate about their subjects. We decided to leave him in public school.

Fast-forward to high school. To minimize frustration, we focused my son on learning, not grades. If he could get a 100 on an exam without doing the homework, we believed his time was better spent doing another activity in which he actually learned something. His grades are less than stellar (3.275 GPA), but he has done very well on all his standardized tests (SAT: 800 verbal, 760 math; SAT subject tests: 800 higher math, 740 chemistry, 710 biology; ACTs: 34). As a junior, he took three AP tests and scored 5 in chemistry, 5 in calculus BC and 4 in U.S. history. He's enrolled in the University of Cambridge program. He's taking seven Cambridge/AP classes, including third-year biology, third-year chemistry and second- and third-year physics combined.

He was not encouraged or pushed by the counselors, but he is more motivated because he is learning at a pace he needs, and he has discovered his passion for science and math. He'll take AP exams in biology, physics, statistics and U.S. government this year. So what's the problem? He has gone way beyond the class work to learn the material in-depth and has demonstrated his knowledge on national and international exams. Unfortunately, none of these exams is factored into high school grades or college admission decisions.

Prince William County's grading system requires a minimum of 18 assignments each quarter. My son received a C-plus in his chemistry class because he didn't do all of his assigned work and received zeros on many of the 18 assignments. The class didn't move fast enough to cover all of the material, so he did different work -- on his own -- and handed notes to his teacher and classmates to help them. He's the only student in the history of the school to get a 5 on the AP chemistry exam, but this type of result never gets fed back into the course grade. He still got a C-plus, not an impressive grade for someone who wants to major in chemistry or chemical engineering.

We've spent considerable time talking to admissions counselors at Virginia Tech. They say they won't look at AP scores until after the students are admitted, don't look at SAT subject test scores and don't recognize the educational value or rigor of Cambridge classes. I have a student who will place out of a year (about 44 credits) of college classes, but they won't let him in because, in their opinion, his GPA indicates he's lazy, he can't do college-level work and he's an underachiever because he scored well on his tests but has only a 3.275 GPA. They recommended that he go to a community college (where the classes are much less intense than the Cambridge curriculum), so he can prove he can handle college-level work. These are my tax dollars at work.

Why is his GPA low? As an example, look at his geography class, a required course. The first day of class, the teacher gave the students the state Standards of Learning exam from the previous year. My son passed at the advanced level with one question wrong, and he has mastered the course work for the year. But the class is taught to the minimum standard. He got an F one quarter because he didn't do 65 percent of the 18 assignments, even though he still got 100s on the tests. He got a B for the class (3.0, not good enough for Virginia Tech). Students can test out of college classes but not high school classes. (He enjoyed reading almanacs and the atlas in elementary school, so there was not much to learn in a class where students thought Canada was one of the 50 states).

The good news is my son got the opportunity to letter on sports teams for three years, participate in Model UN and help his scholastic bowl team win many times. The school principal has been amazingly supportive. My son has been accepted at Clemson, Iowa State and Kansas State universities, where he can study chemical engineering. The bad news is that Clemson costs $30,000 each year. After paying considerable Virginia taxes for the past 36 years, I feel cheated that top Virginia state schools won't let him in because of his high school record.

If he had been home-schooled, they'd have had to look at his same test grades and SAT subject test scores and let him in.

-- Nancy Klimavicz

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