Fairfax County School Board Will Address Inequity in Its Advanced Academic Program

It was my first time to witness a school board meeting in Fairfax county. Fairfax County School Board At-Large Member Karen Keys‐Gamarra last night requested the Board to consider a work session to discuss "inequities of opportunity and access for historically underrepresented populations to Advanced Academic Programs". This is certainly a good first step. What struck me the most however was what I heard before the meeting from a current student. The student talked about his experience of being enrolled in the gifted program in grade school during which he might have appeared a year ahead of his peers in math. Now, that he is in high school, he is now five years ahead in math. He is wondering whether his peers would not have fallen so far behind if they were likewise afforded the same opportunities and access that were given to him.

Poverty profoundly affects basic education in so many ways. One way poverty insidiously undermines education is by limiting opportunities. Oftentimes, low-income learners due to their poorer background before kindergarten are unable to access special curriculum designed to enhance and nurture talents. Advanced Academic Programs like the ones in Fairfax County currently face an underrepresentation of low-income students, as well as Black and Hispanic children. This disparity becomes much larger in scale as the county currently enrolls nearly 25% of its students in Advanced Academics. Statistically, this means some of these students identified as gifted are not even one standard deviation above the mean. The large percentage is alarming especially if one looks at a district in Florida which has reduced the cutoff in one of the screening tests from 130 to 115. These screening tests come with scaled scores in which 100 is the mean and each 15 points correspond to one standard deviation. This reduction results only in an increase from 3.3% to 5.5% in students identified as gifted. Therefore, to see that Fairfax enrolls 25% is truly disconcerting. The huge fraction of gifted students requires schools to teach two separate curricula. Students are placed in different classrooms. Fairfax county thus simply becomes a county with two different schools, and as I have heard from so many parents and children in the county, one classroom is for those who are deemed "smart", and another for those who are seen as "unsmart".

Keys-Gamarra in her presentation asked that the Board to "review evidenced‐based best practices for identification of students in Gifted and Talented programs". It is good to see that evidence-based best practices are mentioned, but there is one serious problem. There is currently no effective practice out there based on evidence. Olszewski-Kubilius and Corwith make it clear in their literature review on identification practices for underrepresented gifted children that this endeavor still leaves much to be desired:

"Research on promising identification practices such as the use of local norms and domain-specific assessments as well as other new options is still relatively sparse and disjointed... ...Implementation is ahead of solid research in this area."
Above copied from
Gifted Child Quarterly

These authors are not alone. Researchers from Duke Talent Identification Program at Duke University have arrived at a similar conclusion.

Above copied from
Gifted Child Quarterly

The above are papers published this year. With these findings in mind, the challenge for Fairfax county to address underrepresentation in its Advanced Academic Programs is in fact daunting. It is asking for a miracle.

Fairfax county, however, can learn from something that it initiated more than a decade ago. This is the Young Scholars program. The program works in a reverse fashion. It provides an enriched curriculum first to students before gifted identification. A good curriculum should really be provided to all and differentiation can still happen within the classroom based on the needs of every student. A curriculum good enough for high achieving students and for children whose parents do whatever is possible to help their children thrive in school, is a curriculum that is good for all children.

Pygmalion and Golem effects are well known in psychology. There are self-fulfilling prophecies. We may think we are labeling educational services, but in reality, we are still labeling children. The parents see it that way and so do the children. And the labels we give them will stick. Every child must have the opportunity to have their skills, interests and talent nurtured. If the effort and resources we place in a seemingly untractable problem of gifted identification are instead channeled to an uncompromising goal of education for all, we may actually achieve so much more for our children.

Fairfax County School Board
Forum Language, 20 December 2018


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