In Era of Scores,
Schools Fight
Over Gifted Kids

Ohio's Odd Compromise:
You Can Take My Student,
But Leave His Tests Behind

By DANIEL GOLDEN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Matthew Benton, a self-possessed sixth-grader with an "A" average and an I.Q. of 132, is likely to pass the Ohio Proficiency Tests next month with ease.

But his prowess on the tests, which are used to assess schools' performance, won't help Bennett Elementary, where Matthew is in a citywide program for academically gifted students.

Instead, Matthew's scores will be ascribed to a school closer to his home, which he has never attended. Told of this practice, the 11-year-old looked puzzled. "It doesn't make sense," he says. "Why will my score count for a school I don't go to?"

In a test-driven U.S. educational system, gifted students -- and their test scores -- are becoming a valuable and sometimes misused commodity. Spurred by performance standards set by the 2001 "No Child Left Behind" law, many schools are trying to keep their top students, rather than send them on to special programs designed to challenge them.

These days, student scores on standardized tests influence not only the future of the children themselves but also of teachers, administrators, schools and districts. Under the new law, championed by the Bush administration, all public-school students must be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Schools face penalties, from student transfers to state takeovers, if they don't continually raise their proportion of proficient students.

Hoping to boost their overall results, schools are squabbling over who gets to claim the test scores of gifted students. In Ohio, the scores of gifted children are credited to their neighborhood schools -- even if they actually attend other schools. Missouri and Iowa have similar approaches, and several other states are considering the idea. In Irvine, Calif., no individual school gets credit for the scores of children in gifted programs. Yielding to complaints from other schools, Irvine last year took the scores away from six schools that have such programs. Now those scores are assigned to the district as a whole.

The allure of their test results is also causing a tussle over where and how gifted children should be educated. Educators contend that some of America's brightest young minds, including minority and low-income students, are being discouraged from gifted-education programs.

"Some schools just aren't nominating kids, because of that whole feeling that if you remove those students, the scores won't be as high," says Gayle Pauley, Washington state director of gifted education and president of the Council of State Directors of Gifted and Talented Education.

"No Child Left Behind" is having a complex impact on gifted kids. On one hand, some gifted-education services are being cut because districts want to concentrate resources on raising lower-achieving students to the required proficiency. But the law also gives schools a powerful incentive to keep gifted students -- rather than let them transfer to programs tailored to their skills -- because these children generally score well on tests.

By emphasizing proficiency, rather than gains made by individual pupils from even the lowest levels, "No Child Left Behind" puts a premium on high test scores. Gifted children's scores can lift a school's overall performance. In Ohio, for example, 90.7% of sixth-graders identified by their school district as academically gifted scored at the proficient or higher "advanced" level in mathematics last year. Only 44.6% of other sixth-graders reached those levels.

The importance of the scores of gifted children to the survival of schools and the jobs of principals and teachers can lead to statistical finagling that distorts school performance. Ohio's policy, for instance, inflates rankings of neighborhood schools at the expense of schools that house district-wide gifted-education programs.

Jill Dannemiller, associate director of the Ohio Department of Education's accountability office, says Ohio omitted the test-score provision from a plan for implementing "No Child Left Behind" that it submitted to federal officials. "We were treading that line of risking them saying no or not telling them," she says.

Eugene Hickok, acting deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, said he wasn't familiar with the Ohio policy, but returning scores of gifted children to their neighborhood schools may violate "No Child Left Behind." He says the federal policy is that test scores of students attending a specialized school by parental choice should stay with that school.

"It sounds as if the folks who want to keep the gifted kids" in the neighborhood schools "are putting the system ahead of the kids," he said.

Nationwide, experts regard about 5% of all schoolchildren -- or some three million students -- as academically gifted. Test scores, grades and teacher referrals are used to determine which children are "gifted." The government defines gifted children as high-achieving students who would benefit from additional challenges to develop to their potential.

Rural and suburban districts often leave these students in neighborhood schools, pulling them out of regular classes for an hour or half-day each week for sessions with specialists trained in gifted education.

To help gifted students fulfill their promise and to save on specialists' salaries, many urban districts place gifted students together in full-time programs. These programs are usually housed in schools that also have regular classes for neighborhood children.

But this practice alienates neighborhood school principals and teachers. Worried that scores will drop if their cream is skimmed off, some educators discourage their best students from leaving, either by failing to nominate them for gifted programs, or by telling parents their children would be better off in the neighborhood schools.

Marjorie Fox, president of an independent foundation that helps the San Diego district attract bright second-graders from low-income families to gifted-education classrooms at different schools, says half a dozen principals have asked its recruiters to stay away from their students. She declined to identify the principals. At the Golda Meir School for gifted third- through fifth-graders in Milwaukee, Principal Thomas Hanley says referrals from other public schools are declining. Resistance from neighborhood schools "has always been a problem, but I would perceive it as getting worse," he says.

There are reasons why parents might not want to send their children to a gifted school, even if they qualify. They may feel the gifted program is too far from their home, or they may want all their children to attend the same school. Some worry that the gifted programs will be too rigorous.

Russ Painter, principal of the Manchester school for the gifted in Fresno, Calif., says teachers and administrators at other public schools often appeal to parental fears in discouraging them from sending children there. "They'll say, 'Your kid's going to have a lot of homework at Manchester, a lot of pressure,' " he says. "It does get kind of personal."

The Ohio policy stems from a turf battle over test scores in Youngstown, a Rust Belt city battered by a shrinking enrollment and tax base. Its students tend to be low-income and transient. One of its few jewels is its gifted-education program, funded by local and state taxes.

The brightest students citywide are identified through test scores and teacher or parent nominations and invited to attend separate fourth- through sixth-grade classes housed in two elementary schools, Bennett and West. The curriculum stresses independent, hands-on work, epitomized by Matthew Benton's science project: testing which toothpaste brand is best at removing grape juice, coffee, and food-coloring stains. (His hypothesis: Aquafresh.)

Study topics range from Newton's Laws of Motion and beginning algebra to novels such as Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." Of 144 gifted students in the two elementary buildings, 44% are black and 92% qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Youngstown's gifted students outshine other schoolchildren on state tests. Last year, 79.5% of the district's gifted sixth-graders attained proficient or above in math and 72.7% did so in reading, compared with only 11.4% of other sixth-graders in math and 15.7% in reading.

When the program started nearly 20 years ago, neighborhood principals "were eager for you to find gifted students in their buildings," says Carol Baird, Youngstown's gifted-education supervisor. "There was a real pride in having someone from your building selected for the program. It's just the opposite today."

With the advent of high-stakes testing, that enthusiasm was replaced by what former gifted-programs supervisor Maria Cougras Pappas calls "subtle sabotage." One principal, Kathleen Good of Youngstown's Mary Haddow Elementary, decided not to refer any gifted children, contending her school met their needs with its own gifted program. When the district asked six children from Mary Haddow to attend the city's gifted programs in 2000, Mrs. Good protested so strongly that the invitations were withdrawn.

"It wasn't fair to pull out your top group and place them somewhere else," Mrs. Good says. "You're creating artificially high scores in some buildings."

Another principal in Youngstown, Sarah Bonaquist of Kirkmere Elementary, says she advises parents of bright but shy children not to send them to the gifted program. She says such children will be better off in a stable, small "family school" such as Kirkmere. Gifted-education specialists respond that children who seem withdrawn in a regular classroom often blossom among their intellectual peers.

Gifted-education staff members have sought to conciliate neighborhood principals and teachers. Nora McDevitt, a science teacher in the gifted program at West, requires gifted fourth-graders who pass the state proficiency tests to write thank-you notes to their third-grade teachers at neighborhood schools.

But "No Child Left Behind" exacerbated the tensions. In 2002, when Youngstown's Harding Elementary lost 10 students to gifted programs at other schools, Principal Beverly Schumann thought it was "very, very unfair. I felt like, we have an excellent staff here, this staff is what got those students to be identified as gifted, and now they're pulled out just when the test scores really counted."

Mrs. Schumann tried to stem the defections. She pleaded with the mother of Heidi Wingler, a gifted third grader, to keep her at Harding for fourth grade. "She told me she was encouraging the gifted students who were leaving to stay," Elizabeth Wingler says. "Her rationale was that she needed the gifted kids to pull the other kids up. But it seemed to me she was really more worried about the test scores."

Mrs. Wingler replied that Heidi needed to transfer because she wasn't being challenged academically. Mrs. Schumann confirms the conversation, adding that the Harding staff would have provided a suitably demanding curriculum. Heidi is now a fifth-grader at West, where her mother is happy with her progress.

In the summer of 2002, Youngstown voiced its concerns when the Ohio Department of Education assembled a task force on gifted education. The state accepted the task force's recommendation to attribute the test scores of gifted students to neighborhood schools. It applied the same policy to the less desirable test scores of special-education students, because schools drawing high numbers of students with disabilities from around their districts complained they were at a disadvantage.

Some gifted-education advocates say they supported the change because they felt it was the only way to ensure that neighborhood schools would send their best students to gifted programs. Without the change, "local administrators and boards of education would begin to dismantle programs for gifted education," says Ms. Pappas. "That would be a tragedy."

When the policy took effect with last March's Ohio Proficiency Tests given to fourth and sixth graders, the biggest Youngstown beneficiary was Mrs. Schumann's school, Harding. By including Heidi Wingler and other gifted neighborhood students who had transferred and no longer attended the school, Harding's proportion of proficient fourth-graders in reading rose to 57.4% from 47.9%; and in math to 44.1% from 42.6%

The policy hurt the two elementary schools that house citywide gifted-education programs. At Bennett, where one-eighth of students were in the gifted program, the exclusion of their scores reduced the proportion of fourth-graders proficient in reading from 47.8% to 36.4%, and in math from 20% to 15.9%. Scores also dropped significantly at West, where one-tenth of students were in gifted classes.

Kara Guyer, a sixth-grader at West, won city and county math competitions this year. Her two older brothers and one sister also attended the gifted program.

But Kara's results on the upcoming state tests will be allotted to Kirkmere Elementary -- which she left in 2001, after third grade. "The teachers here teach us all the stuff for the proficiencies," says the 11-year-old daughter of an aluminum-packaging worker. "But the other teachers are getting the credit."

Both schools housing the gifted programs fell short of "No Child Left Behind" milestones. If they miss federal targets again next month, they will have to offer parents the option of transferring their children to a school meeting the benchmarks. Both schools also dropped in the state ratings. Those ratings don't carry extra penalties but affect a school's reputation, as the scores are publicly available and closely watched.

"Oh my God, our building report card looked awful when it came out, with no explanation to parents," says West Principal Sandra Kelty Mislevy. "We looked like we dropped all these points. Everybody's going to flee. It's devastating."

Now that their scores no longer help the school, she says, gifted students aren't as big a priority at West. For instance, she may be less inclined to provide tutoring out of discretionary funds for gifted children who are weak in one particular subject. "I would never want them to be unsuccessful," says Mrs. Mislevy, but "they're not a group I focus on."

Write to Daniel Golden at dan.golden@wsj.com

Updated February 4, 2004