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Will Old Donation School Ever Be Fully Integrated? Part 2: The Folly of Testing First Graders

In Part 1 of this blog series, I reported some unsettling statistics from the Virginia Department of Education’s 2021 and 2022 Fall Membership Reports for Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) and Old Donation School (ODS), VBCPS’s academy for advanced academics:

  • At the same time the enrollment of ODS increased from 1,306 to 1,335 students, the number of Black students at this public school for gifted students decreased from 77 to 69.

  • The 69 Black students represent 5.2% of the school's student body; the percentage of Black students across the district is 23%, or 15,076 out of the 65,550 students enrolled in VBCPS.

  • For the current school year, 15.9% of ODS students are economically disadvantaged, although 45.9% of all students who attend VBCPS schools have been identified as economically disadvantaged (30,111 out of 65,550).

Why Is This Happening?

Referring to these statistics in my last blog post, I asked the question above. Readers who examined the pie charts in that first installment may have noticed that students *classified as “Hispanic” and “Non-Hispanic, two or more races” are also underrepresented at the top-ranked public school in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

To try and find answers as to why these inequities exist, I went back 25 years. In 1998, the Virginia Beach School Board approved a plan for a single-site elementary school specifically for 400 academically gifted students in grades 2-5. So that the newly named Old Donation Center (ODC) would have a second-grade cohort, the district needed to identify “gifted” students while they were in first grade. Beginning in 1999, all first graders in Virginia Beach were required to take a standardized test as a screening tool for potential giftedness.

Testing very young children in public schools was common in the 1990s. From 1992 through 1998, I administered standardized tests to my first-grade students in DeKalb County, Georgia. At the time, every elementary school student in the DeKalb County School District—except kindergartners—took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) every year. Why? Because somebody thought that the cost, in terms of money and lost instructional time, was worth comparing DeKalb’s youngsters to their counterparts across the nation. Just another example of a bad decision by central office personnel.

Giving the ITBS to first graders was not pleasant, mainly for the kids, but it was memorable. I spent a significant amount of class time teaching 6-year-olds how to correctly “bubble in” on mock answer sheets with their #2 pencils. During testing sessions, I witnessed unusual behaviors from many students, such as body rocking, head banging, and breaking down in tears. These experiences led to my interest and later research in children’s test anxiety.

After testing was completed, I asked my students this open-ended question: “What was the best part about taking the ITBS?” To a person, they said it was either the Jolly Rancher breaks or extra recess on testing days. Some couldn’t decide and said they liked both.

So now it’s 2023 and approximately 5,000 first graders in Virginia Beach continue to take standardized tests during their first semester of school. Recently, the top brass decided to double the district’s first-grade testing budget so these mostly six-year-olds could take not one, but two standardized tests: the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT) and the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT).

Purchasing thousands of additional standardized tests might have been part of a plan to fully integrate ODS. Assuming that the deciders at VBCPS want to diversify the school, their rationale could have been this: (a) twice the number of tests will increase the number of identified gifted first-grade students, and (b) may increase the number of young gifted first graders from underrepresented groups, and (c) then the caretakers of these economically disadvantaged children and children of color will submit applications for the students to attend ODS, which (d) will diversify the student body of the prestigious school.

If you believe trickle-down economics actually works, then you may also believe this double-testing initiative for first graders will succeed. But unless more substantive changes are made, the student body at VBCPS’s gifted school will continue to be dominated by economically advantaged White and Asian students, just as it has for the past quarter of a century.

What Do the Experts Say?

Fortunately, some educators and policy makers have come to their senses about giving standardized tests to first graders. New Jersey has had a law since 2015 that limits the use of standardized testing in Grades K-2 to assessments used for diagnostic and formative purposes. In addition, Illinois enacted “Too Young To Test” legislation last year to prohibit the state board of education from requiring districts to administer standardized tests to students in PreK through Grade 2. Like New Jersey, Illinois’s exception is diagnostic assessments, though not the type of tests used to identify gifted students, such as the CogAT and NNAT.

Various experts have weighed in on administering standardized tests to young children. According to the legendary Samuel Meisels, a leading authority on child development, “Experts and organizations concerned with academic assessment generally agree that standardized, group-administered tests should not be used with children younger than third grade” (2007).

In an earlier piece, Meisels explained why administering standardized tests to children in grades K-2 is a fool’s errand:

Young children are developmentally unreliable test takers. They have a restricted ability to comprehend such assessment cues as verbal instructions, aural stimuli, situational cues, or written instructions. Further, questions that require complex information-processing skills ... may cause a child to give the wrong answer. (2006, p. 8)

The authors of a chapter in The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span (2009), “Issues in Early Prediction and Identification of Intellectual Giftedness” concurred, stating that “problems pertaining to early identification arise because of questions about whether giftedness can be reliably identified.... [and] the predictability of the index used with regard to giftedness during childhood and beyond” (2009, p. 50). Two errors that commonly occur are

  • False positives Identifying a young child as gifted “when that is not the case later.”

  • False negatives Designating a young child as not gifted “when they would emerge as gifted at a subsequent point in time.”

How many false positives and false negatives result each year from Virginia Beach’s first-grade gifted identification process?

Final Thoughts

Maybe VBCPS’s superintendent of schools and the Virginia Beach School Board aren’t aware of what the world already knows: Giving standardized tests to first-grade students is simply wrong! Since there’s no risk in repeating myself, I’ll finish with an excerpt from blog post I wrote six months ago:

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.... 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.

In the conclusion of this blog series, I will make sensible recommendations for VBCPS to fully integrate its academy for advanced academics. Look for Part 3: The Great Equalizer next month. In the meantime, check out this timeline:

Standardized Testing: Selected Highlights & Lowlights

1905 – Alfred Binet creates the first standardized “intelligence test” to identify French students with learning difficulties. Despite its popularity, Binet stresses that his test is not perfect and that children’s mental development progresses at different rates.

1917 – The U.S. Army uses group-administered standardized intelligence tests for assigning men during World War I. About half of the recruits test at or below the level of “moron.”

1965 - The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is enacted and an unprecedented wave of mandated standardized testing of American schoolchildren follows.

1976 – The Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) demands a moratorium on standardized testing in the primary grades.

1991 – ACEI reiterates its demand for standardized testing of young children to end.

1995 – The Commonwealth of Virginia adopts the Standards of Learning (SOL). Three years later, the first SOL tests are administered.

1998 – The Virginia Beach School Board approves a plan to open a gifted elementary school, paving the way for annual standardized testing of VBCPS first graders.

2022 – After 23 years of giving one standardized test to first graders, VBCPS begins administering two standardized tests to all first-grade students in the district.

*NOTE: “Hispanic” and “Non-Hispanic, two or more races” are terms used to denote two ethnic groups on VDOE’s Fall Membership Build-A-Table page in the drop-down menu for “Race.”

1 Comment

Meghan Raftery
Meghan Raftery
Apr 06, 2023

Thanks for this post and series, Doug! As a parent of two students at ODS, I believe strongly in the mission/vision of the school and also know there is plenty of room for improvement and open dialogue about the purpose and practices of gifted education in the school system locally and nationally. Our older son was identified during the 2020 school year, when widespread standardized testing was not possible. The decision to admit him came from anecdotal notes from his classroom teacher and school and a parent recommendation. Our younger son took the full set of standardized tests and the identification process was entirely different. Even the way the kids talked about giftedness before, during and after the assessments concerned…


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