JaLynn Montes, a parent and teacher, makes the case for why she thinks all children should be tested to see if they qualify for highly capable programs.

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(Editor’s note:  Education Lab welcomes guest essays about your personal experiences with education, whether you’re a teacher, parent, student or anyone who has attended or worked in schools.  This is the first of two essays we’ve recently received, which, coincidentally, both focused on Seattle Public School’s programs for highly capable students.  The second will be published on Wednesday morning.)  

As a mother of three children who attend Seattle Public Schools, I recently received an email invitation to participate in a forum to discuss how the district can best work toward equity for all its students regardless of socio-economic status or racial identity.

I have a diverse background in the field of education; I’ve taught in K-12 schools and community colleges in Washington State since 1997.  My experiences as an educator have informed my views concerning how systems work—more or less effectively—to provide access to a quality education for every student.

Thus, I felt compelled to accept the district’s invitation to propose solutions to solving the equity gap in Seattle.

In a recent teaching assignment, during the 2014-2015 school year, I taught language arts and social studies in the eighth-grade Advanced Placement Program (APP) at Hamilton International Middle School.

The APP program (now called HCC) offers advanced classes “for students who have been evaluated for and designated as Highly Capable.”

To place into the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC), a student needs to score in the top 2-3 percent (98th, 99th, or 100th percentile) on standardized tests of cognitive, reading, and math skills.

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While teaching at Hamilton — and I’ll mention here that I’m Korean-American — I taught four APP language arts classes.

I was one of a nominal number of non-white people in the room in all of my classes, which ranged in size from 24-30 students.

Out of the 150 students I taught, five were Asian and only one was African-American.

How does this happen?  What’s equitable about a school district that provides special services for the elite, white, privileged, top 2-3 percent of the children and families it serves?

Recently, at a Whitman Middle School PTSA meeting, Principal Sue Kleitch shared a figure that astounded me: of the approximately 4,300 students enrolled in the HCC program in Seattle Public Schools, only around 50 are black.

What message does this send to students in the district?  That white students are the current and future members of the intelligentsia, while black and brown students are not.

Every ethnic and racial group has a percentage of students who are highly capable; without identifying these students, the district perpetuates the notion that white students are disproportionately cognitively gifted.

My son has taken Seattle’s series of tests to place into HCC and/or Spectrum (the program for students who score in the 87th to 97th percentile on the standardized tests mentioned above).  I found out, through parents in my network and through my own research, about Seattle’s opt-in advanced-placement testing process just as my first child was beginning kindergarten.

If I hadn’t had access to information about the advanced-placement qualification procedure through that network, I would have likely missed the opportunity to have my children tested.

Further, if I were an English language learner, gaining access to the details of the process would be that much more difficult.

Thanks to the Beaverton School District in the 1980s, I was part of the talented and gifted program there.  That’s because the district tested every student, in school, and my score showed I could perform at a high level.

If the district had used an opt-in system for identifying advanced-placement students, I would have missed out on the specialized and more rigorous coursework the program provided; my parents did not have the wherewithal to ensure special services for me.

More than thirty years later in Seattle, the opt-in system leads to a serious stratification of students and their opportunities for advanced learning.  Until this is addressed, I can’t believe that the district has any real intentions of working to achieve equitable education across socio-economic and racial divides.

In surrounding districts such as the Shoreline School District — my current place of employment — the notion of inclusion is taken more seriously.  Rather than having families opt in for advanced-placement testing, the district tests all students, giving families the choice to opt out.

In speaking with a district employee at the Advanced Learning office with Seattle Public Schools, I was informed that Seattle is in its third year of screening all second-grade students at Title I schools (schools with a high proportion of students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches) for advanced-learning services.

I applaud this effort, but I wonder: Why has this measure only recently been taken?  And why stop there?

If Seattle is genuinely interested in closing the achievement gap, why not test everyone?

In the email sent out to Seattle Public Schools families, community members were invited to submit ideas about how to best tackle the fact that Seattle the fifth-largest academic achievement gap in the nation between black and white students.

Here’s my contribution: Test every child for advanced placement services, while giving parents the right to opt out, not making them opt in.

Seattle Public School’s campaign to demonstrate “our collective commitment to eliminating opportunity gaps and accelerating learning for all students – specifically for our black students and other students of color” can begin with Highly Capable Cohort testing reform.

And, from there, the discussion about eliminating the opportunity gap in the Seattle Public Schools can be taken as more than just lip service and public relations sleights of hand.

JaLynn Montes teaches in the Shoreline School District.  She has three children who attend Seattle Public Schools.  She is an adherent to the belief that education is the most fundamental component to achieving social justice.