Columnist

When Tricia Levy was in elementary school, she enjoyed one of the best programs for gifted and talented students I have ever heard of.

Every Saturday morning, her mother would drop her off, with money for a snack, at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She took classes for bright children with titles such as Math Games, Creative Dramatics and Ancient Mythology. She loved it.

Her son had a different experience. At his Virginia elementary school, he got into the gifted program for English but not math. Levy thought he was stronger in math, so she asked her son’s teacher and counselor why he wasn’t admitted to the gifted class. He had the second-highest score in the school on a standardized math test but didn’t participate in class, they said.

Maybe he was bored, Levy said. The gifted teacher said if Levy’s son did well on accelerated work, he would be designated gifted in math, too. It happened, but only because he had “a questioning, pushy mom,” Levy said.

I got a huge response to last month’s column on the grip of calcified classification on gifted and talented programs. Passing the admissions test by a point gets you in, but someone creative may be rejected for scoring a point below the cutoff. Even if students do make the cut, what they get is often not nearly as intriguing and liberating as Levy’s Saturday classes more than 40 years ago.

A father in Albuquerque who asked not to be identified told me he changed schools often as a child because his father was an Air Force officer. He didn’t try hard on lessons he’d already had. His sixth-grade counselor said he probably wouldn’t graduate from high school. But a seventh-grade teacher challenged him and he soared.

Forty years later, the system messed with his children. His oldest just missed the gifted class cutoff and made little progress for three years. When the father and his wife asked the school to test their next-oldest child, they got the eye roll that means “every parent thinks their child is gifted.” Years later, that boy was finally tested and scored big.

“I have come to believe that education is too important to leave to the educational professionals,” the father said. They let their third child fly free with home schooling and local community college courses.

Many parents don’t know enough to protest. David Mog, later a physics and chemistry teacher at Sidwell Friends School in the District, remembered his working-class parents couldn’t figure out how to deal with his high school. It would not put him in the accelerated chemistry class even though he was shining in accelerated math — and later got a doctorate in chemistry at Caltech.

A former teacher trainer from the District who requested she not be identified said the system clamps down on children’s ambitions when it assigns them early on to advanced, middle and slow reading groups. And it’s the same when teachers complain that some children’s questions are delaying the class. Many kids get turned off to learning, don’t try as hard and never become candidates for gifted and talented programs, she said.

And then there is a widespread attitude that poisons high schools in particular. “In some circles, making a student work really hard at a subject that is proving difficult is seen as an assault on their self-esteem,” she said.

Levy’s son discovered a new form of lunacy in middle school. The school decided to favor the gifted kids not with more time to explore their interests but with more graded assignments. “So you’re telling me I have to do more work and risk getting a lower grade than the guy sitting next to me . . . who does less?” he asked. “How is that a good thing?”

Creative educators have subtle ways of fixing this. At a recent meeting for parents of students in one gifted class, the teacher never uttered the word “gifted.” She signaled that the school was going to give every class the extras the gifted class got. That could weaken the tyranny of admissions tests for gifted classes, and nourish the curiosity of every child, as Tricia Levy discovered long ago.