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Will Old Donation School Ever Be Fully Integrated? Part 3: The Great Equalizer


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In case you were wondering about the main title of this blog series, Virginia Beach’s Old Donation School (ODS) is integrated, but it is not fully integrated. Allow me to explain:

  • The definition of fully is “in every way or detail; completely or entirely.”

  • The definition of integrated is “allowing all types of people to participate or be included.”

  • Fully integrated means “allowing all types of people to participate or be included in every way or detail; completely or entirely.”

  • A comparison of the total enrollment of Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) by racial/ethnic group with ODS’s student body by group for the 2022-23 school year shows that ODS is not fully integrated.

Source: Virginia Department of Education, Fall Membership Reports, 2022

In addition to the racial inequities at ODS, the best public school in Virginia caters primarily to privileged children in Virginia Beach. Currently, 15.9% of the 1,335 students enrolled at ODS in grades 2-8 are economically disadvantaged, but the percentage of economically disadvantaged students across in the district is much greater: 45.9% (30,111 out of 65,550 students).

The Problem of Underrepresented Groups in Gifted Education

The underrepresentation of certain groups in gifted programs in the United States is nothing new. According to eminent gifted education authority Scott Peters, “K–12 gifted and talented programs have struggled with racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, native language, and disability inequity since their inception. This inequity has been well documented in public schools since at least the 1970s” (2021).

The chart below illustrates the disproportionate underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic students who receive gifted services in Virginia and nationally, as well as the imbalance of Asian and White students in gifted programs. The data are from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) for the 2019-20 school year and the U.S. Department of Education for 2015-16.

Source: VDOE, “Research Focus: Gifted Education” Quarterly Research Bulletin, Nov. 2021

Interestingly, the VDOE research bulletin that reported these numbers was quickly removed from public view after it was published. I obtained a copy of the bulletin after contacting the author of New Report by VA Dept. of Education Finds “Disproportionate Racial Representation in Gifted Programs” (2020). The lack of transparency in many public agencies is appalling.

The Argument for Early Identification of Gifted Children

The National Association for Gifted Children believes that children should be identified for giftedness at an early age because “early identification in school improves the likelihood that gifts will be developed into talents” (n.d.). While various experts agree, they tend to ignore the fact that young children from underserved groups are underidentified for gifted services.

The following graph shows that by first grade, nearly 10% (.1) of all White and Asian students have been assigned to gifted programs, while fewer than 5% (.05) of all Black and Hispanic first graders are designated for such programs. The statistics are from research that used a nationally representative sample of 20,000 kindergarten and first-grade students. The American Educational Research Association (AERA) published the study.

Source: Grissom & Redding, “Discretion and Disproportionality: Explaining the Underrepresentation of

High-Achieving Students of Color in Gifted Programs,” AERA Open, 2016

The vast differences in these proportions point to serious problems with the methods by which Black and Hispanic are being identified, or not identified, for gifted services. Summarizing a study by the Education Week Research Center, Corey Mitchell described the consequences: “Gifted and talented programs in school systems across the nation are failing to reach all of the students who need them” (2019).

Arguments Against Early Identification of Gifted Children

There are no hard-and-fast rules or best practices that dictate when children should be tested for giftedness. Responding to the question, “When to Test?” noted gifted authorities Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster advised parents whose children show early signs of being gifted: “If your child’s development is generally proceeding well, and they seem happy and interested in learning, there’s no reason other than curiosity to think about testing [for giftedness]” (2021).

In Part 2 of this series, I railed against the leaders of Virginia Beach City Public Schools for their decision to increase the number of standardized tests that first graders have to take each year. The sole purpose of administering two tests—the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) and the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT)—to roughly 5,000 first-grade students annually is to screen these mostly six-year-olds for gifted services.

VBCPS’s first-grade testing program is a waste of time and money, and it might do more harm than good. Here’s why:

  1. Standardized tests are developmentally inappropriate for young children. “Experts and organizations concerned with academic assessment generally agree that standardized, group-administered tests should not be used with children younger than third grade” (Meisels, 2007). Illinois and New Jersey have outlawed administering standardized tests to students in grades K-2.

  2. Standardized test results for first graders are not reliable. “Because young children have rapid and uneven development, they are developmentally unreliable test takers” (Gao & Grisham-Brown, 2011). Individual variables such as attention span, mood, and motivation affect first graders’ performance on standardized tests.

  3. Standardized tests create stress (Armstrong, 2013). In general, first-grade students “crave the security of having routine, structure, and plenty of time to do their best work” (Wilson, 2011). Taking a timed standardized test is not routine for first graders; for many, it will be their first experience with test anxiety. Estimates of students’ test anxiety indicate that it affects “25-40% of the population” (Cassady, 2022).

Overall, “problems pertaining to early identification arise because of questions about whether giftedness can be reliably identified during ... early childhood” (Gottfried et al., 2009). False negatives, or test results that suggest a child is not gifted “when they would emerge as gifted at a subsequent point in time” (2009), are common.

First graders in Virginia Beach who don’t make the cut must wait four years for the district’s next full-scale screening, which means countless gifted children will miss out on gifted services in grades 2-5. At the same time, the lucky first graders who are identified—mainly well-off White and Asian kids—are allowed to apply for admission to Old Donation School. If accepted, they get to attend ODS through eighth grade. If they aren’t accepted, they are placed in classes that use the resource-cluster model* at their home school.

It’s highly unlikely that the racial and socioeconomic inequities at Virginia’s best elementary school will change because the number of standardized tests administered to VBCPS first-grade students has been doubled. Youngsters from Virginia Beach’s more affluent neighborhoods will continue to predominate each second-grade cohort at ODS. It’s no coincidence that many of these kids scored high on the CogAT and NNAT because their parents obtained test prep materials from sites such as Amazon, TestingMom, TestPrep-Online, and tests.com.

There Ought to Be a Better Way

Despite the long history of underserved groups in gifted programs, there is hope. In a recent Gifted Child Quarterly article, Scott Peters wrote:

The field of gifted education has never been more focused on equity.... In just the past 10 years, major progress has been made.... The most important requirement in moving these efforts forward is that they focus on the actual problems—that is, inequality, systemic racism, and the lack of access to talent development opportunities. (2022)

Rather than focusing on the actual problems, Virginia Beach City Public Schools seems to be stuck in the mire when it comes to resolving the inequities at ODS. Is it fair to ask whether the district’s leaders even care about this “lack of access to talent development opportunities”?

A line heard frequently in the workplace is, “That's the way it's always been done here.” Over a half-century ago, renowned author and journalist Sydney Harris added a twist to the sentiment: “A winner says there ought to be a better way to do it. A loser says that's the way it's always been done here” (1968).

We’ve seen the results of 20+ years of giving first graders standardized tests – the way it’s always been done here. The top brass at VBCPS has a choice; they can act like winners and find ways to eradicate the inequities at ODS, or they can turn a blind eye and continue to deny underserved children a chance to attend the best public school in Virginia.

Below are my recommendations for a better way:

  • Suspend all group-administered standardized testing in first grade.

  • Initiate universal screening for giftedness at either the second- or third-grade level. (Preferably third grade for these reasons.)

  • Discontinue the use of the NNAT for universal screening. (The CogAT includes a nonverbal subtest with figural reasoning items similar to the NNAT).

  • Adopt the planning and instructional methods used for the gifted-resource model* in every grade 2-5 class at every VBCPS elementary school.

  • After promoting current students to the next grade level at the end of the school year, transform ODS to a school that serves only grades 3-8 or grades 4-8, depending on the grade level that universal screening for giftedness is implemented.

  • Increase the number of students in grades 3-5 or 4-5 (elementary level only) to maintain ODS’s present enrollment numbers.

  • Focus on improving the racial and socioeconomic diversity of ODS during the selection process for new elementary students.

Concerning my last recommendation, I do not believe—despite decades of unfair gifted identification and selection procedures at ODS—that bias in favor of any race or ethnicity is appropriate in public education. To be considered for acceptance, all applicants to Virginia Beach’s academy for advanced academics should be qualified.

I am, however, recommending that economically disadvantaged children and students from Title I schools who meet ODS’s minimum standards be given precedence over their privileged counterparts when all else is equal. Disadvantaged and underserved children are the students most in need of access to talent development opportunities.

Education Is the Great Equalizer

The oft-quoted phrase above was penned 175 years ago by Horace Mann, an abolitionist and early supporter of women’s rights and increased pay for teachers. Mann envisioned free, nonsectarian schools for every American child, whether rich or poor. The mission of public schools, according to Mann, would be to offer academic opportunities that allow the fullest development of each person – in other words, social and economic mobility through education.

Unfortunately, our country and schools have not owned up to Mann’s ideals. Sure, we’ve read individual success stories of people who persevered in the face of racial discrimination, poverty, abuse, and other obstacles to fulfill their dreams, but the bigger story is this: nearly 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education, “public schools remain highly segregated along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines" (2022). What will be the legacy of Old Donation School?

*According to VBCPS’s Gifted FAQs, “Gifted services are available to identified students in their neighborhood schools through the resource-cluster model. In each school's resource cluster [sic] model, the gifted resource teachers and core area cluster teachers to develop [sic] exciting, differentiated curriculum through a collaborative team effort.” I wonder what type of curriculum is offered to students in nonresource-cluster model classes.

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