The war on standards: gifted student programs edition [UPDATED]

The Washington Post reports that the Montgomery County school district (which covers an affluent suburban county just outside of Washington, D.C.) is concerned about racial disparities in its “gifted student” programs. A report it commissioned found marked disparities by race and ethnicity in enrollment and acceptance rates, with white and Asian students faring much better than their black and Hispanic counterparts.

The report notes, for example, that enrollment in the district’s elementary centers for the highly gifted was 47 percent white, 34 percent Asian, 8 percent African American, 8 percent low-income and 4 percent Latino in the 2013-2014 school year. In Montgomery Blair High School’s elite math, science and computer science program, enrollment is 57 percent Asian and 28 percent white. African American and Hispanic enrollment are each less than 5 percent.

To analyze disparities like these, two key questions must be asked. First, at what rates are the various groups applying for admission into such programs? Second, what are the selection criteria?

The first question is crucial in analyzing programs like language immersion, for which selection is done by lottery. The second question is crucial for classic gifted programs like Montgomery Blair’s.

As to the first question — applicant flow — it is clear from the report that minority group members aren’t applying at as a high a rate as others. The report tries to attribute this to failure by the school system to let “Hispanic/Latino, Black/African American, non-English-speaking, and low-income families” know about the programs.

But the report also says this:

[The schools system] has developed and implemented a wide variety of communication tools to share information about the programs with parents and community members. These include printed materials that are mailed to MCPS households in seven languages; information on the district’s website and PTA listservs and webpages; informational meetings at local schools in English and Spanish; program-level Open Houses; and outreach through school-based counselors, staff, and principals.

This sounds like a huge amount of outreach, at no small expense to Montgomery taxpayers. What, then, is the problem?

According to the report, some parents of minority students complain that even with the outreach described above, they are “require[d] to conduct independent research.” The horror!

Call me old fashioned, but I can’t imagine a parent of any race or ethnicity enrolling his or her child in any school or program without conducting “independent research.” What a Nanny State we will have when public authorities relieve parents of the task of researching the options available to their children.

Now, let’s consider the selection process. How does Montgomery County decide who gets into its programs for gifted students?

According to the report, the school district “utilizes multiple indicators in the selection process that include, in addition to cognitive assessments, teacher recommendations and other school-based input, report card grades, unique student profiles, demographic data such as eligibility for free and reduced-price meals, and the lack of an intellectual peer group at the home school.”

Clearly, then, the school district is already fudging its definition of gifted — e.g., by relying on demographic data such as eligibility for free and reduced price meals (what does getting a free lunch have to do with being gifted?). But the report complains that given the lack of diversity among those selected, “the process may rely too heavily on one or more indicators or may need to consider additional measures of student ability.”

The report doesn’t say which indicators may be relied on too heavily. But you don’t have to be gifted to realize that the authors think there’s too much reliance on cognitive assessments (i.e., test scores), the traditional and most sensible single tool with which to determine who is gifted.

The report recommends that the selection criteria be broadened “to include noncognitive measures such as motivation and persistence, using group-specific norms that benchmark student performance against school peers with comparable backgrounds.” In other words, it wants the district to grade on a racially based curve.

Using the curve, programs for gifted would admit (1) students who actually are gifted and (2) students who are gifted only in comparison to “peers with comparable backgrounds.” Because space is limited, by including the latter group, the district would exclude some in the former group — i.e., actually gifted students.

Motivation and persistence are great attributes, but if they aren’t reflected in exceptional test scores and academic performance, they don’t make one “gifted.” Moreover, doing well in relation to “peers with comparable backgrounds” doesn’t even demonstrate strong motivation and persistence if one’s peers lack motivation and persistence.

Montgomery Blair’s math, science, and computer science program has produced more Intel Science Talent Search finalists since 1999 than any school in the United States. But students who get into the program with “mismatched” credentials won’t win talent searches. In fact, they will probably struggle unless the program is dumbed down.

Unfortunately, dumbing down gifted programs appears to be what Montgomery County is fixing to do. These programs, such as Montgomery Blair’s staggeringly successful one, are slated to be another casualty in the war on standards.

UPDATE: In light of what’s going on with the gifted students program in Montgomery County, Richard Samuelson’s parody piece “Harvard to Go Egalitarian” seems spot on.