While legislators debate a law that would require testing all students for high intelligence, the Northshore School District is doing exactly that, and finding high potential in kids who had been overlooked.

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Until last month, only 28 low-income children out of 3,000 in the Northshore School District had been deemed academically gifted. The same pattern held for nonnative English speakers, only 11 of whom had been rated intelligent enough for accelerated learning.

But in January, Northshore upended its old system of screening students for giftedness based on test scores and parent referrals. Instead, they decided to measure the potential of everyone — all 16,000 elementary- and middle-school children — in an effort to change the racial and economic complexion of advanced learning.

As a result, about 500 low-income or foreign-born students in the district now will be considered for gifted education.

“If it’s predictable who’s in your bottom or top quartile of students, you’re not leading an equitable school district,” said Northshore Superintendent Michelle Reid, testifying before the House Education Committee in favor of a bill that would mandate similar undertakings across the state.

Currently, almost all Washington children considered academically gifted are middle- or upper-class and white or Asian, which mirrors national patterns. And those trends can significantly influence a child’s future.

Fewer black and Hispanic kids in accelerated classes means many will be less prepared for challenging coursework in high school, and less likely to reach for high-level careers, said the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute in a report issued this week.

Changing that pattern could “gradually lessen social and economic inequality,” the authors wrote.

A core of parent advocates in Northshore felt similarly and pushed the issue front-and-center for legislators this session. Already, their bill has lost some pricey requirements for teacher training, and its testing requirements have been trimmed from two sweeps to one. But even if it dies, Reid and her team will stay the course.

“We shouldn’t have to legislate doing what’s right,” she said in an interview. “If public schools can’t take a low-income kid and put them on a path to break out of that bracket, what’s the point?”

Reid’s thinking on the matter was supercharged by a visit last fall from Vanderbilt University Professor Donna Ford, an expert on equity in advanced learning. Ford reviewed Northshore’s highly capable program, and her verdict was bleak.

“She basically said our hi-cap program was a country club. I practically slid under the table,” Reid recalled. “But it was true, and we had to own it.”

Northshore’s efforts do not come cheaply. It cost the district about $175,500 to buy its new Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, which eschews English vocabulary, instead asking students to differentiate between shapes. But educators received some funding help from the Legislature, which last year promised additional money to districts seeking more low-income gifted students.

Jen Benson, who runs Northshore’s program, has already seen some changes.

“Adults view people in certain ways and we make judgments about them,” she said. “So when a child gets a Naglieri result that I never expected, I can’t help seeing them in a different light, and I’ll likely behave differently toward them, too.”

Traditionally, Washington has allowed its 295 school districts to run gifted education with great independence. As a result, the state has a patchwork of approaches and outcomes. A few places screen all children, but most — including Seattle — rely on a combination of parent referrals and teacher recommendations.

An analysis by The Seattle Times found that white students in Seattle were nearly 18 times more likely than blacks to be in gifted classes.

“Our system sorts, separates and pulls kids whose families have the savvy and the resources,” said Sebrena Burr, president of the PTSA Council in Seattle, where requirements for accelerated learning are particularly stringent and many affluent parents pay for their children to be privately tested.

Those one-on-one sessions almost always result in higher scores than the Saturday cattle-call exams, where hundreds of kids cycle through. For low-income parents working multiple jobs and unable to drive their children to a testing site, even those weekend sessions can present an impossible hurdle.

This fall, there may be students in Northshore’s newly expanded gifted classes who rate as highly creative, despite low academic skills. For them, said Benson, the district will offer tutoring.

“Our job,” she said, “is to see potential and grow it.”