Although advanced and accelerated learning opportunities are part of basic education, many highly capable students across the state are being overlooked and therefore denied access to learning opportunities that would help them thrive.
Lawmakers have an opportunity to remedy that by passing Senate Bill 5354, which was unanimously approved by the Senate last year.
That bill, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who is also a former teacher, would require universal screening for highly capable students and help train educators to recognize and support these learners’ unique strengths and needs.
It attacks factors that are known to lead to uneven identification of gifted students, especially among children of color or from low-income families. The bill requires school districts to screen every student for eligibility to highly capable programs — with screenings happening during the school day at the student’s regular school. It opens the referral process to include community members who are familiar with a student’s potential. It allows districts to consider data other than standardized test scores, including language-acquisition rates, and requires them to ensure students with disabilities receive proper accommodation during the screening process. It requires teacher-preparation programs to include information on identifying highly capable students and serving their unique educational needs.
SB 5354 gets to the heart of barriers to gifted education in Washington, unlike the narrowly targeted Senate Bill 6282, which was the subject of a public hearing last week.
That bill was drafted largely in response to controversy over a shift in gifted education in Seattle Public Schools, and neglects the central and necessary improvements included in Rivers’ bill.
Last week, Seattle School Board directors voted to phase out Washington Middle School’s Highly Capable Cohort (HCC), which separates some high achieving students from their peers for instruction in designated classrooms and implement a building-wide, project-based STEM curriculum. Advocates say the change will offer more challenging opportunities to a greater number of students, but parents of some HCC students fear that will come at a cost to their children’s education and that this is only the first step of a larger plan..
SB 6282, drafted by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, would throw paperwork at the problem, giving school districts 30 days to develop individual learning plans for affected students when dissolving HCC programs. His intentions may be noble — to ensure that students are not shortchanged when districts mainstream advanced learning resources — but the legislation misses the mark.
Designated cohorts, such as those in Seattle Schools, are only one way to meet the unique learning needs of highly capable students. State law reflects that, leaving programming details to local school districts. Policy decisions at this level of specificity properly belong with locally elected school boards.
Pedersen’s proposal excludes by omission the hundreds of highly capable students in Seattle Schools, and thousands statewide, who already receive special learning opportunities outside of cohorts. What’s more, it does not appear to reflect current thinking on best practices in gifted education. Experts say learning plans as specific as those Pedersen is proposing are necessary for only a handful of exceptionally gifted children. In every case, individualized plans can be only as useful as a district’s ability to follow through.
Overlooking gifted students represents more than a squandered opportunity. Highly capable students that go unrecognized and unchallenged can be misidentified as having behavioral issues. They can feel isolated from peers and risk disengaging from school.
If legislators really want to help Washington’s gifted students, as they should, they should abandon SB 6282 and swiftly adopt SB 5354.