A task force of parents, educators and community members recommended Seattle Public Schools use more than just test scores to gauge whether a student qualifies for advanced learning services.
The recommendation, one of nearly 50 compiled and voted on by the district’s Advanced Learning Task Force on Tuesday evening, would also allow for factors such as a student’s classroom performance or extreme interest in a subject area to be considered in an evaluation for the services.
Task force members also proposed that when using test scores to evaluate eligibility for the gifted program, scores for underrepresented students in the program — such as kids of color or those learning English — should be compared to similar students rather than a cutoff score set by district. Members also want screening for giftedness to be offered in multiple grades using a nonverbal test that is more accessible for English learners. And task force members suggested that schools should share the responsibility for screening and identifying kids for giftedness.
The final recommendations, which are being condensed into a document for public release in January, come as the district seeks to transform the way it identifies and delivers advanced instruction. Many parents and district officials regard the current system as racially biased, serving mostly white and Asian students, but there is considerable debate over how to best solve the long-term problem.
Many attribute the disproportionality to Seattle and other districts’ use of cutoff scores on cognitive tests as the sole factor in determining whether a student is gifted. Some of these assessments have been criticized for narrow scope and cultural bias. The task force recommendations reflect an evolving model of gifted education that focuses less on labeling students and more about serving their needs.
State law requires that school districts have measures for giftedness and equitably identify low-income students. The recommendations will inform the district over the next year as it works to reform the advanced learning program, a process that will be “fraught with a lot of politics,” superintendent Denise Juneau told task force members Tuesday.
It already has been. At the beginning of the school year, the district had pitched getting rid of the main way it offers accelerated learning — in a network of select schools where gifted students attend classes together, known as the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC) — in favor of a neighborhood schools model. Proposals to do this districtwide and at Washington Middle School drew uproar. The Seattle School Board shot them down, at least for now.
Because of task force members’ varying opinions on the cohort model, the recommendations don’t weigh in with firm support or opposition to it. In general, they acknowledge that a small subset of students may require placement outside their neighborhood schools. And instead of scrapping the cohort model immediately, they suggest a pilot phase where the district can study whether neighborhood schools can provide the type of instruction typically found at a cohort school.
The district created the task force last summer and charged it with a wide range of responsibilities, including researching best practices for equitably identifying and serving advanced learners. It is the third district task force dedicated to advanced learning. Now that it has officially finished, the district is assembling another group to help with implementing the recommendations. Any big changes to the advanced learning program will have to go through a School Board vote. That’s not expected to happen until spring 2020 at the earliest.
Here are some other ideas proposed by the task force:
- Allow private testing for giftedness only for students with disabilities and underrepresented students.
- Serve most students in their neighborhood schools, except for a small subset who may have highly specialized needs that can’t be met there, including those with exceptional cognitive ability, a history of trauma or a learning disability.
- Eliminate racial disproportionality and barriers to enroll in high school AP and IB classes.
- Have schools keep data on the demographics of their advanced learning services and have a plan to address disproportionality.
Members had mixed feelings about the final list of measures they voted on, some of which are long and difficult to follow. As they convened for the last time, a few said they felt the end of the process was rushed and that they didn’t have enough time to review the measures. Though a majority of the proposals passed, some members abstained from voting several times. (The district will complete a larger report on the task force’s discussions that may include dissenting opinions in January.)
“It looks like the work of 24 different editors,” said Colin Pierce, a task force member who works at the city’s education department. “But I’m happy with it.”
Pierce and others said task force discussions about the future of advanced learning in the district have become more nuanced over time. Many members started out on opposite ends of the debate over the cohort structure, said Vanessa Meraki, a special-education teacher on the task force. But over 18 months, she said, the discussions became less polarized as they worked on a common goal of equitable access.
Meraki said she started serving on the task force completely opposed to self-contained classes of gifted students. But after hearing from others on the task force about the need to keep those environments for some students with specialized needs, she’s loosened her stance somewhat.
She said she’s not holding her breath that the recommendations will accomplish much, other than being a starting point for more talks.
“As a parent and teacher, I’ve seen wheels turn very slowly,” she said.
The measures voted on by the task force were split into three parts. You can view a scans of the materials they received Tuesday at the links below. (Note: Some of these measures may undergo editing and become restructured in the final report.)
Applications for the new district’s advisory group on implementing racially equitable changes to the advanced learning program are due by Jan. 8, 2020.