Racial disparities in Charlottesville’s and Albemarle County’s gifted education programs have come under intense scrutiny in recent months.
Leaders of both school divisions say they are pursuing changes to make the programs more inclusive and fair to all students and perhaps affect statewide policy.
While about 12 percent of white students in Albemarle County currently are identified as gifted, fewer than 2 percent of black and Hispanic students are in the county’s gifted program. Fewer than 100 of more than 4,000 economically disadvantaged students in Albemarle are identified as gifted.
Superintendent Matt Haas’ proposed budget for the 2019-20 academic year includes $105,401 to enhance the division’s “talent development” model for gifted services. The funding would be used to hire a program manager to help elementary schools provide gifted instruction to a more diverse pool of students.
Students in a talent development pool participate in activities designed to produce “artifacts” of critical thinking, creativity or problem-solving skills that are required for gifted identification. Teachers would use a new online dashboard to log their observations of each student.
“Every single child has a gift that we can support with attention and encouragement,” Haas said. “Let’s begin looking for gifted behaviors that all students can develop, rather than looking for gifted individuals.”
Currently, Albemarle students who do not score at or above the 95th percentile nationally on the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) must demonstrate strength in creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking and academic performance to be identified as gifted. Students who achieve the CogAT benchmark score need to show strength in just two of those domains.
Instead of using national norms for the CogAT, Albemarle’s talent development model would use “group-specific norms” based on comparisons of students within the same school. The talent development pool would be composed of the school’s top 10 percent of CogAT scorers in categories of race, family income, disability and English language fluency.
Maureen Jensen, Albemarle’s lead coach for gifted instruction, said a talent development model requires close collaboration between classroom teachers and gifted-resource teachers.
“It puts a tall order on gifted-resource teachers … to help teachers nurture all students, but also to provide services to kids who do need something different because the classroom is not meeting their academic needs. But they are up for it,” Jensen said.
Although the new talent development model would bring gifted services to more students in underrepresented groups, Jensen said it would take longer for the division’s gifted identification data to reflect this diversity.
“Our service data will line up with the division’s [demographic] data. But our identification data is going to lag behind a bit,” Jensen said. “Our identification system is broken. We need to take a look at policies and procedures that we have in place.”
At a recent work session, county School Board member Katrina Callsen said the division should still try to eliminate bias in favor of white students in its identification procedures and not simply try to minimize its impact.
“I’m excited about the redesign, but I wouldn’t be so dismissive of how we don’t identify diverse students,” Callsen said. “It bothers me that we don’t question [the assumption] that we don’t have black kids who have easily identifiable talents. … I want to see more diverse kids identified as gifted. We should continue pushing towards our goal.”
Haas said Albemarle’s new approach to gifted education could prompt the Virginia Department of Education to re-examine its “antiquated model” of identifying gifted individuals.
“I think this is going to be one of these areas where we will change the system,” he said.
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The city school division began using group-specific norms for talent development several years ago. However, racial imbalances in Quest — Charlottesville’s gifted program — have persisted.
Bev Catlin, coordinator of gifted instruction for the division, said gifted-resource teachers at each of the city’s elementary schools closely monitor a pool of students that includes the top 10 percent of CogAT scorers from each demographic subgroup.
“Our goal is to help these students reach their full potential and succeed in rigorous curriculum,” Catlin said.
As of September, 6 percent of Charlottesville’s black students and 7 percent of the division’s Hispanic students were identified for Quest, compared with 28 percent of white students. That disparity was highlighted by a New York Times/ProPublica story in October that investigated the achievement gap between the city’s black students and their white peers.
School Board Chairwoman Jennifer McKeever said the story has generated enough awareness and buy-in from the community to justify fundamental overhaul the Quest program. She expects the division to begin making changes to the program later this year.
“In order to be successful, you have to be deliberate,” said McKeever, who serves as the board’s representative on the Quest Advisory Committee.
School Board member Sherry Kraft said she is interested in administering the CogAT test at a later age. Charlottesville currently does its universal screening in first grade, a year earlier than Albemarle.
“I don’t think we should be doing testing in first grade across the board,” Kraft said. “We focus too much on standardized assessment to determine who is in or out.”
Charlottesville Superintendent Rosa Atkins’ proposed budget for 2019-20 doesn’t include any new funding initiatives for Quest. She said future changes to the program would be aimed at “[finding] the potential our students have, and not relying so heavily on the experiences that the student is bringing in.”
“We are making sure any methodology we use taps into the strengths of all students, so we can clearly amplify those strengths,” Atkins said.
Atkins said the division also would review its practices to ensure that gifted instruction is being delivered as discreetly as possible.
“There are times when the students who are left in the classroom do not look like the students who were just pulled out [for Quest]. That’s where we need to take a look,” Atkins said. “Any services that we offer should not ever leave our students feeling as if that program or that service is not for them or is not available to them.”