Anyone who has read my summer blog series or the letter I wrote recently to the editor of Virginia’s largest daily newspaper knows where I stand on the procedures used by Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) to identify gifted students and select students for Old Donation School (ODS). It is particularly disturbing that VBCPS has done little or nothing to fix the racial/ethnic and socioeconomic inequities at ODS, a $63 million state-of-the-art academy for gifted students in grades 2-8. The pie charts below show the underrepresentation of Black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students at ODS during the 2021-2022 school year.
How is it possible that these inequities persist in a school district that claims to “focus on equitable representation of students and diversity while creating learning environments in which students of all backgrounds can thrive” and “identify and address inequities in learning opportunities for students”? One answer is hidden in plain sight on page 80 of VBCPS’s Local Plan for the Education of the Gifted 2020-2025: “The goal of the selection process used at ODS is to select the top candidates from those who apply.”
While this statement sounds reasonable, a closer look at “the selection process used at ODS” reveals its bias in favor of economically advantaged White and Asian American students. The pie charts above are proof of this bias. I explained the details of ODS’s flawed selection process in a 2021 research article and the blog series alluded to earlier. A summary of the flaws as well as suggestions for fixing this unfortunate situation are included in the series finale.
Two Significant Changes
Although the leadership of VBCPS has known about the inequities at ODS for years, it was not until recently that the gifted identification and ODS application guidelines have undergone significant changes. I applaud the district for two of the changes. First, the district will begin using local norms on standardized test results to determine which students are referred as candidates for gifted services and ODS. In the past, VBCPS only looked at national norms to screen students for gifted services.
“Norms” is short for “normative scores.” Norms are used to compare the performance of examinees on standardized norm-referenced tests – for example, the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT) and the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT). National norms are used to gauge how well an examinee did on a test in comparison with other examinees across the nation. Local norms compare the test performance of examinees in smaller populations, such as a grade level within a school or a school district.
The use of national norms was—pardon the expression—the norm for identifying gifted students in the past, but nowadays more districts are using local norms. This is because, as one expert in the field of gifted education stated, “School leaders should be looking for the top 10 percent of their students, not looking for students who meet the top 10 percent of national standards” (Bowman, 2019). VBCPS should be commended for deciding to employ local norms.
The other change is described on the Gifted Screening and Identification Process page of the VBCPS website: “An application for gifted services and Old Donation School (ODS) will automatically be submitted for any first grade student scoring greater than or equal to the 90th percentile on the NNAT3 or any subtest of the CoGAT [sic].”
Clearly, the district’s intent in introducing local norms to the gifted identification equation is to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups in its gifted programs and prestigious gifted school. Studies have demonstrated that local norms have resulted in gifted populations that more closely resemble a school district’s demographics, yet researchers have noted that local norms “fail to even fully resolve underrepresentation and they are no magic wand” (Peters, Makel, & Rambo-Hernandez, 2021).
The purpose of automatically submitting applications on behalf of high-scoring first graders is also meant to boost the historically low percentages of Black, Latine, and economically disadvantaged students who receive VBCPS gifted services or attend ODS. While this will probably increase the number of identified gifted children from every demographic group within a year, it may not alter the socioeconomic and racial/ethnic makeup of the ODS student body for some time. Because the vast majority of new students admitted annually to ODS are second and fifth graders, it won’t be until the 2026-2027 school year before the public knows whether the two changes to VBCPS’s gifted identification and application procedures have had a substantial effect on the demographics of the elite school.
Educators like me have often wondered why many school district leaders believe that more testing of more students is a good thing. This dogma also exists at the state level, as evidenced by a recent Virginia law that mandated an “assessment system to include at least one beginning-of-year, one mid-year, and one end-of-year assessment” in reading and math for third- through eighth-grade students. Honestly, I can't think of a better way to welcome kids back to school than by giving them two standardized tests! /S
Prior to the current school year, VBCPS gave only one test, the NNAT, to screen first- and fifth-grade students for further evaluation for giftedness. Purchasing and administering over 9,000 standardized tests is expensive and time-consuming, so I was surprised to hear that the district would be buying another test, the longer and more costly CogAT, to give to thousands of first graders this fall. Despite VBCPS’s good intentions, administering back-to-back standardized tests to 6- and 7-year-old children is ill-advised.
“Educators need to work to reengage students in school, emphasizing the importance of the school community and the joy of learning. Administering tests too soon undermines both of these objectives” (Council of the Great City Schools, 2020). I don’t know any teachers who would disagree with this excerpt. Giving standardized tests to first graders is cruel and unusual punishment. During my six years as a first-grade teacher in the 1990s, I saw the anguish on many of my students’ faces while they were taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills – and sometimes before and after testing.
Although students will take countless tests by the time they’re in 12th grade, starting off their academic careers with two standardized tests is short-sighted. Most first graders come to school ready to learn, do well, and fit in with their peers. Unfortunately, standardized testing separates the kids who do well from the kids who don’t, making the latter group feel like they don’t belong. The most egregious consequence of giving standardized tests to young children is the stress and anxiety that many experience. Their first encounter with a formal evaluation often determines how they will react when taking high-stakes tests in the future.
Call to Action
So what can be done? Not much, as long as the conventional thinking at VBCPS holds that children should be identified for gifted services in first grade. I can, however, make a suggestion to parents of VBCPS first graders who are not interested in having their child (a) attend ODS, or (b) automatically placed in a gifted resource-cluster class* in second grade. The recommendation is simple:
Call your child’s school and say that you do not want your first grader to take either the NNAT or the CogAT (i.e., “opt out”). The NNAT and CogAT testing windows open on October 5 and November 2, respectively, so make that call today!
Opting out of first-grade standardized tests doesn’t mean that a child will never be identified for VBCPS gifted services. According to the Gifted Screening and Identification Process page, a parent, “teacher, peer, student response team or any person who has knowledge of the student’s abilities may... initiate an application for gifted services testing by contacting the gifted resource teacher (GRT) at the student’s neighborhood school. Students may be tested for gifted programs one time within a school year.” While there are a few sound reasons for administering standardized tests to 6- and 7-year-old children, my advice to parents of first graders is to weigh the pros and cons before you make your decision.
More to Come?
The changes described in this post are good-faith efforts on the part of VBCPS to address the inequities in its gifted programs, but they fall short of fixing the systemic injustices that have disproportionately affected gifted young children of color and economically disadvantaged children in Virginia Beach for decades. The district will need to do much more to “Establish processes and opportunities that are inclusive of students with diverse abilities, beliefs, and cultures during the identification and education of gifted and talented students” one of the stated goals in the VBCPS Local Plan for the Education of the Gifted 2020-2025. I will continue to watch and report on the district’s steps and missteps as they attempt to chart the course toward equity for all students.
*An elementary resource-cluster classroom includes groups of 6-8 identified gifted students “clustered” in a heterogeneous classroom taught by a teacher with local training in gifted education and assisted by a GRT. Find out more by going to the VBCPS Gifted page and scrolling to the bottom.