Silver Chips Online

Earlier tracking hurts at all levels

March 13, 2012
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.