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March 13, 2012

Earlier tracking hurts at all levels

This article was written by the Silver Chips Print Editorial Board and is intended to represent the official views of the newspaper.

MCPS may already go above and beyond the Maryland State Board of Education’s newly adopted guidelines for gifted and talented (GT) education, but the county has yet to take GT labeling to the state-condoned extreme. The Feb. 28 GT legislation suggests that schools monitor their students from pre-kindergarten, a dangerous move that threatens to widen the achievement gap and contribute to the deceleration of curricula across MCPS.

By asking schools to consider monitoring three- and four-year-old students for signs of vague "giftedness," Maryland is sending an improper message about the way students learn. While it is undeniable that some students are more capable than others of rigorous work from a young age, identifying students as gifted or "regular" before they are old enough to read can have dangerous implications.

For one, students who are placed in the on-level track are often already fighting an uphill battle against academic discouragement because of socioeconomic factors. Labeling students whose parents did not have the time or ability to teach them to read before Pre-K as "on-level" runs the risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: "on-level" students are more likely to be put in frustratingly slow classes and have drastically reduced chances of ever advancing off their track. These disadvantages increase the likelihood that these students will become discouraged or even stop trying to succeed in their classes.

By the ripe age of five, it is perfectly reasonable that students may not yet have hit their academic strides. Labeling students as gifted before they have even spent a full year in school increases the likelihood that their giftedness will be an indication of their higher socioeconomic statuses and native English speaking rather than their intelligence. Currently, MCPS data indicates that white students are 20 percent more likely to receive a GT label than their black peers. Such labeling promotes the achievement gap - if a students fail to receive a gifted label in elementary school, the repercussions of being branded "on-level" can follow them through to their high school graduations.

MCPS likes to boast about its high enrollment in honors and AP classes, a result of early tracking. Schools with the most advanced classes are quickly considered "the best." But in reality, high enrollment for students in honors or AP classes says little about a curriculum’s rigor and more about a school’s labeling. MCPS’s statistic that half of the student body is gifted is grossly higher than other school systems in Maryland and the country. While MCPS could argue that its student population is just teeming with the best and the brightest, the truth is that MCPS has just manipulated the GT labeling system. By identifying such large proportions of its student body as gifted, MCPS runs the risk of sending unqualified students into classes they cannot handle. When enough students are struggling in a class that is too difficult, teachers have to bring the class’s rigor down a notch, which deflates the meaning of an "advanced" class.

While it is certain that not all students are capable of the same level of work, the state of Maryland would be better off if it did not rush into the labeling of GT students, and instead waited until students’ initial socioeconomic leg-ups were mere mitigating factors in their educational potential. Pushing back the timeline for labeling would ensure that fewer students slipped through the cracks, allowing MCPS to guarantee that all worthy students receive a challenging, stimulating education.

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  • MCGATE (View Email) on March 16, 2012 at 9:02 PM
    The National Association for Gifted Children’s Early Childhood network has published a position statement on creating contexts for individualized learning in early childhood education. They support collaboration between parents, caregivers and educators in order to develop the potential of precocious learners ages 3-8. The position statement an be found here: The NAGC Early Childhood network lists common characteristics found among young gifted children, including the use of advanced vocabulary, early reading (without drill, coaching or flash cards), keen observation skills and insatiable curiosity, an incredible memory and retention of information, ability to concentrate on tasks for long periods of time compared to age peers, and a unique ability to recognize patterns and relationships and think abstractly (Clark, 2002; Smutny, 1998; Smutny & von Fremd, 2004). Patterns of gifted behavior are often observed by parents of children as young as three and are evident as early as pre-school. It is well accepted in the field of exceptional education that early intervention can be critical to support cognitive and affective growth. One can look at the success of programs such as Head Start and Early Childhood Intervention services and recognize that providing nurturing, enriched and engaging environments during early childhood years can lead to enhanced educational success. This is the same need that young gifted children have. In addition, it is more critical for bright learners who come from poverty or traditionally underrepresented populations. According to the NAGC Early childhood network, “early educational experiences of many young gifted children provide limited challenge and hinder their cognitive growth rather than exposing learners to an expansive, engaging learning environment. This problem may be intensified among traditionally underserved populations of young gifted students including culturally, linguistically, and ethnically diverse learners, as well as children from poverty because in many cases additional resources for providing enriched learning experiences in homes and communities are also limited (Robinson et al.; Scott & Delgado, 2005).” It is imperative that young gifted children’s’ needs are not ignored and that responsive learning environments are provided as soon as they formally enter school. There is no research to support waiting for a gifted child to hit third grade or later before he or she should have access to developmentally appropriate educational services. In addition, early recognition and intervention is critical for enabling young children from economically impoverished environments to develop and demonstrate high potential. NAGC’s Recommendations for providing an appropriate stimulating environment for young gifted learners include the following: • recognition of students as individuals who enter school with a unique set of experiences, interests, strengths, and weaknesses that will influence their readiness to learn (Elkind, 1998; Feinburg & Mindess; Smutny & von Fremd, 2004) • informal and formal observations about student strengths and readiness that inform the planning of learning opportunities (Smutny; Smutny & von Fremd) • flexibility in the pace at which learning opportunities are provided (Some gifted learners benefit from acceleration to prevent needless repetition while others make gains with additional time to explore a topic in a more in-depth manner than same-age peers.) (Smutny & von Fremd) • opportunities to build advanced literacy skills (Gross, 1999; Stainthorp & Hughes, 2004) • ample and varied materials including but not limited to technology, print material, and manipulative resources (Barbour & Shaklee, 1998; Bredekamp & Rosegrant; Clark, 2002) • instructional strategies that foster an authentic construction of knowledge based on exploration, manipulative resources, and experiential inquiry (Barbour & Shaklee; Clark; Katz & Chard), • early exposure to advanced concepts in age-appropriate ways (Clark; Smutny) • interaction and collaboration with diverse peer groups of children having like and different interests and abilities (Bredekamp & Rosegrant; Elkind) • experiences that range from concrete to abstract (Katz & Chard; Smutny & von Fremd) • opportunities for social interaction with same-age peers as well as individuals with similar cognitive abilities and interests (Bredekamp & Rosegrant; Clark) • engagement in a variety of stimulating learning experiences (including hands-on opportunities, imaginative play, and problem-solving) (Barbour & Shaklee; Clark; Smutny), and • caring and nurturing child-centered environments that support healthy risk-taking behaviors (Barbour & Shaklee; Clark; Elkind; Smutny). Early intervention for young gifted learners does not mean that the child has to be formally assessed, labeled and tracked, but that all learners, including those who show early signs or precocity are allowed to blossom and grow in a nurturing and supportive environment. Formal identification procedures are unlikely to begin as young as three in Maryland as a result of the GT COMAR, however, this will help school systems work to expand the services for all learners by recognizing that children develop at different rates and that giftedness sometimes is apparent at an early age. For instance, by implementing the Primary Talent Development lessons with all students, teachers can observe different forms of giftedness, including problem solving skills, critical thinking and creativity that might tap into different strengths that may not be as evident in second grade or later on group measures such as the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) or the Naglieri Nonverbal Intelligence Test (NNAT.) This actually can benefit English Language Learners, economically disadvantaged students and ethnically diverse learners who may stand out with these types of performance based activities. There should be an open door identification process in which all students are monitored and provided opportunities to participate in gifted and talented services in their areas of strength as they show need for such services. On-going assessments and progress monitoring from multiple data sources from Pre-K through grade 12 can increase the pool of candidates and ensure a more diverse population of gifted and talented students in our state. For more information on young gifted learners, the Primary Talent Development Model and the Maryland Coalition for Gifted and Talented Children, please visit these sites: Dr. Keri M. Guilbault Chair, NAGC Parent Advisory Council President, Maryland Coalition for Gifted and Talented Education
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