Let's start the new school year by resuming the lively debate in this column over gifted education in Fairfax County. Last spring, some readers said they thought the gifted and talented centers admitted too few children. This parent suggests the centers are not admitting the right children.
Dear Extra Credit:
My three daughters attended the Haycock Elementary School Gifted and Talented Center in the Falls Church area, which was implicitly criticized in the letter from Jacqueline Morgan last May ["Only 8, but Already Deemed Average," Extra Credit, May 26].
As a longtime Haycock volunteer and as president of the Fairfax County Association for the Gifted, I thought it was important for the public to read the other side of the story.
My daughters' GT Center classes always had a critical mass of highly gifted students, which enabled them to learn much more than if they were in a general education class. For example, Haycock's sixth-grade GT Center students were exposed to algebra, geometry, trigonometry and challenging logic problems. Without a GT Center, the students would have been told to work by themselves or to sit quietly while the teacher taught the county school system's "compacted math curriculum," which would be much too easy for most of them.
The same types of benefits extended beyond mathematics. Haycock had four levels of orchestra and three levels of band last year. Without the GT Center, the most musically advanced students would have been scattered among several schools, where they would have been forced to play much simpler.
Similarly, even the most advanced chess players usually found partners at their levels at the after-school club. Without the GT center, they would have to attend a regional chess tournament or play chess online to be challenged.
Bringing highly gifted students together enabled them to excel. Haycock students regularly ranked among the top 20 students in the Virginia Math League sixth-grade division. Last year, Haycock's sixth-grade MathCounts team outscored all but two middle schools in its chapter. Haycock students consistently ranked among the 10 top WordMasters teams in the nation. And Haycock students regularly won trophies in local and state chess tournaments and Future Problem Solving.
Ms. Morgan never suggested how she would let schools educate gifted students if the GT centers were eliminated. Would she make them sit through too-easy classes or tutor other students? That would ensure that they learned as little as possible. Fairfax County created GT centers to ensure that gifted students could learn at their own pace, and the centers still serve that function for many students. But centers have changed so much in recent years that this is not always true.
Today, test scores are only part of a subjective screening process. The school system admits some students who score below 100 on the Cognitive Abilities Test while rejecting some who score 150, the maximum score. In the early 1990s, the school system admitted about 5 percent of students to the GT centers, their average Cognitive Abilities Test scores were over 130, and the vast majority were reading, writing and doing arithmetic two-plus years above their grade levels. Today, the school system admits more than 13 percent of all students, 9 to 10 percent enroll, and some of these students lack basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills (according to the school system's GT programs coordinator). Meantime, far more advanced students are sometimes rejected.
The school system also has made it more difficult for teachers to challenge their most gifted students. The school system created GT classes in base schools and formed many new GT centers. It adopted Reg. 3250, which discouraged the use of ability grouping. Meanwhile, GT center teachers were told to make sure their least advanced students succeeded, which often was defined as getting a "pass/advanced" score on Standards of Learning tests. At Haycock, fun and challenging class musicals gave way to SOL-prep plays. Junior Great Books discussion groups largely disappeared. The research paper for fourth-grade students disappeared. Logic problems were replaced by manipulatives in some grades. Fourth- and fifth-grade GT center classes ceased participating in WordMasters.
With the holistic admissions process, people noticed that some students in general education classes were academically stronger than some GT center students. This caused some parents to question the fairness of the GT center selection process. It also made it harder for GT center and general education teachers to regularly challenge their most gifted students.
The solution to these problems is not to eliminate GT centers and ability grouping. It is to use a less subjective process to determine which students are eligible to attend the GT centers and to use more grouping by ability within general education classes and within and among GT centers. That way, all students can be challenged academically, at least some of the time.
Thomas Jefferson High School
and Longfellow Middle School
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