in Houston, Texas

Lots of Einsteins or too low a bar? Houston ISD bursting at the seams with 'gifted' students, shelves plan to tighten standards

Thursday, Jan 19, 2012, 08:24AM CST
By Mike Cronin
Chess

Of all the challenges facing the Houston school system, here's one you probably haven’t heard about: It may have too many gifted kids.

About one student in every six in the Houston Independent School District has been identified as "gifted and talented" -- that's more than twice that of the Texas and national rates for gifted children, according to public records and a national expert.

Just what will be done about it, though, is unclear. HISD administrators in August had considered making it more difficult for students to qualify for the gifted program, but that plan was shot down after "feedback from principals" said it would be "a bad idea," district spokesman Jason Spencer said.

If the gifted criteria had become more stringent, he added, students already in the program “probably would (have been) grandfathered in.”

Peggy Sue Gay, 52, a mother of two sons educated in HISD's gifted program and a member of the district's Gifted and Talented Parent Advisory Committee, is one of many parents who complained that HISD “does not have a clear consistent path for" gifted and talented students.

“When I met with the administration in December, they admitted" they had not rectified the gifted and talented situation, "and said it needed to be addressed,” said Angela Standridge, 46, co-chairman of the committee. Her son, 14, is gifted and has an IQ between 165 and 168, depending on the test.

“I have not seen (a solution) in writing and action, but there does seem to be a dialogue. It would be most helpful if they filled the open position for a gifted and talented coordinator. It will not be on anyone else's front burner, no matter how many parents voice the concern.”

About 15.6 percent of HISD's student body has been identified as gifted and talented, according to e-mails written by HISD administrators in August and obtained by Texas Watchdog. The state rate is 7.2 percent, or closer to one child in every 14.

And even Texas’ percentage is a bit higher than the national average, which is between 6.5 percent and 7 percent, said Jim Borland, a professor who specializes in gifted and talented curricula at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York.

Chart
“Houston’s percentage of gifted and talented students is very high,” Borland said. “I haven’t come across an urban school district with such a large scale of gifted and talented students – or anything close to this.

"It makes you ask why so many kids need a form of special ed. What’s wrong with the general education system? That’s sort of the implicit message – that about one in seven students need something outside the regular curriculum.”

Each Texas school district is required to use at least three criteria for entrance into gifted ed programs -- but the districts are allowed to pick what those criteria will be.

HISD officials use a matrix which includes these factors:
  • Student scores on achievement tests in subjects such as reading, math and science and on a nonverbal-ability test;
  • Grades on the student’s report card;
  • Teacher recommendations; and
  • Obstacle points, which are “awarded to those from low-income families, English language learners, historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and/or special education,” Spencer said.
The proposal that HISD administrators discussed in their August would have raised the score students needed to earn to gain admission to the gifted and talented program by five points, to 67 from 62.

Even if the five-point increase occurred however, the percentage of HISD gifted and talented students might drop only to 13.4 percent of the student population, according to the e-mails – still much higher than the Texas and national averages. Spencer said the five-point increase would reduce the percentage to 12.5 percent.

But Spencer said that “the fact that HISD has identified a higher percentage of students as (gifted and talented) than the average Texas school district is not indicative of a problem in and of itself.”

Yet Tracy Weinberg, associate director of the Texas Association for Gifted and Talented in Austin, disagreed.

“When you over-identify gifted and talented students, you’re slowing the pace of classroom instruction and not creating a challenge for students who are truly gifted,” Weinberg said. “They don’t get the depth of content and complexity because there’s too many bases to be covered in the class.”

And it could even hurt students who normally would not qualify as gifted and talented, said Columbia’s Borland.

“The whole goal of a gifted and talented program is to identify kids who need that type of instruction and group them homogenously with kids of comparable ability,” Borland said. “The larger you make that group, the more heterogeneous you make it. If kids are misplaced, it’s not good for anybody. It could be less effective because of the unwieldy range of abilities in the gifted program.”

But parents of HISD gifted students say any plan that would cut kids out of the gifted program could hurt the pupils who remain in it, robbing them of valuable dollars precisely at a time when the district faces cuts across the board due to a looming $44 million budget deficit.

“I’d hate to see the district take dollars away from the high-performing kids,” said Judy Long, 64, a parent who has raised four HISD graduates. “We wouldn’t do this to athletes, but we’ll do it to our most gifted kids, like the best violinist. It’s crazy.”

Texas funds programs for 5 percent of students whom individual school districts identify as gifted and talented, said Long, who also serves on the district’s gifted committee. The HISD board of trustees created that committee and appointed about 18 members last year.

“The remainder of (the funding comes) from the HISD budget for kids identified over the 5 percent,” Long said.

Parents have clamored for improvements to the Houston schools' gifted and talented curriculum since administrators eliminated the top program for the district’s best and brightest in 2006.

Long said she believes HISD officials eliminated the "Tier 1" gifted and talented selection process and program five years ago to allow more minority students to access to top-notch academic and arts learning opportunities.

Though a noble cause, Long said that hurts those students who are truly a cut above the rest.

“Now that great violinist goes into a pool with lower (collective) talent,” Long said. “If we do something for the least-able students, we need to do something for those working at or above grade level.”

But she emphasized that the answer is not to take away minority students' access to gifted and talented opportunities or lower the percentage of pupils identified as gifted and talented. That would only eliminate necessary funding to students with high ability.

Instead, Long and other parents said HISD administrators should restore the Tier 1 program, which would create a curriculum for those who really stand apart from the rest of the pupil population.

But even under the current gifted program, Hispanic, African-American and low-income students are under-represented, Spencer said.

For instance, Asian students are six times more likely to qualify as gifted and talented in HISD as African-American students, Spencer said. Overall, 42 percent of all Asian students in HISD have been identified as gifted and talented, along with 40 percent of all white students.

But just 7 percent of the district's African-American students have been designated as gifted and talented.

Those numbers aren't at all in line with the overall demographics of HISD's student body, which is nearly two-thirds Hispanic and about one-quarter African-American.

The state's plan for gifted ed says a school district's gifted and talented population should be reflective of its total population, Spencer said.

HISD officials have addressed this issue in recent years by implementing universal gifted and talented testing for all kindergartners and fifth graders, Spencer said. And in high school, HISD officials provide rosters of gifted students' names to ensure identification is carried over from middle school, he said.

Organizing students according to their actual abilities is the most effective manner to teach kids, said Patrick Suppes, an emeritus professor at Stanford University who founded that school’s Education Program for Gifted Youth.

“It’s a mistake to get caught up in a single definition" of gifted and talented, Suppes said. “It’s a good idea to stratify.”

Spencer acknowledged that the district "has more work to do when it comes to properly identifying" gifted kids, and said an ad hoc committee comprising HISD principals recommended examining the current matrix to determine whether it needs refining.

If district administrators decide it does, any changes would be made in time for the 2013-14 academic year, he said.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.
 
Photo by flickr user sethstoll, used under a Creative Commons license. 

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Comments
Jason Spencer
Thursday, 01/19/2012 - 12:57PM

I'd like to clarify a statement in this story that was attributed to me regarding HISD principals' reaction to a proposal to increase the minimum score required for a student to designated as G/T. Principals DID NOT voice opposition to a more rigorous screening process. Instead, they voiced a reluctance to do so by simply raising the minimum G/T qualifying score on the HISD scoring matrix. Rather, the principals suggested that HISD revisit whether the scoring matrix itself is in need of revision. My complete written response to a Texas Watchdog question on this issue, which was provided before the story's publication, follows:

HISD statement to Texas Watchdog:

"In 2010-2011, HISD’s G/T identification matrix score was 57. In 2011-2012, the score was raised to its present level of 62. The identification matrix score is frequently reviewed by a committee. Increasing the matrix score to 67 would result in 12.5 percent of students being identified as G/T. This possibility was discussed with the Principals Ad Hoc Committee earlier this month. Feedback from principals was that increasing the matrix score to 67 at this time would be a bad idea. They recommended that staff spend some time re-evaluating the matrix from which the scores are derived to determine whether it needs refining. This re-evaluation of the matrix will occur in time for any potential changes to be employed for the 2013-2014 school year."

Jason Spencer, HISD spokesman

Friday, 01/20/2012 - 06:52AM

I actually agree with using a multitude of tests to identify GT. There is a lot of weight put on the NNAT, and that is only a certain type of intelligence. Kids can be very bright but not do that well on the NNAT, because it is a spatial ability test. Using a more IQ-like test like the OLSAT might provide better results.

Plus, there's the whole problem of testing four year olds. The margin of error on that process has to be huge--and once identified, those kids are considered "GT" all the way through fifth grade--regardless of any future test results.

But what HISD is telling you with its stubborn clinging to that outmoded matrix is that there is no difference in learning ability between kids who "test qualify" with a matrix score of 56 and kids who score 99 on their matrix. That completely fails the common sense test. And classroom teachers can tell you that teaching across the gifted spread is challenging...as many kids who are probably average learners are identified as "gifted" in HISD. So we hear the word differentiation but it's hard to identify what that means when a single curriculum is being used in a classroom.

Barks in the Country
Friday, 01/20/2012 - 06:56AM

It's the pollution in Houston's air causing this 'gifted and talented' epidemic.

Mary
Friday, 01/20/2012 - 11:41PM

I speak for what I see for why minority students have a high percentage of GT rate. It is because their parents are the group of high IQ people who mostly got Master or Doctor degrees from US universities.

HISD Teacher
Sunday, 01/22/2012 - 12:21PM

Well, part of the reason so many students are identified is that they are tested year after year either at their parents' insistence that they are special and last year's test was wrong OR the school administration's desire to have G/T numbers leading to re-testing kids year after year. Not to mention the fact that the rubric that students are evaluated on by their teachers weighs too much in the evaluation. I've even had a magnet coordinator ask me to bump up a student's evaluation because their Naglieri (G/T qualifying test) was low and they might not make the cutoff. Every teacher knows that a G/T label is a joke-- there is no enrichment, no special curriculum. What does result is that schools get more money for each G/T student. It's not much, but in lean times, every penny counts.

Tested parent
Sunday, 01/22/2012 - 12:22PM

I have to wonder about that NNAT test that HISD relies on so much. Some parents send their kids to prep classes for 5th grade NNAT. There are a few GT programs in HISD that excels on Stanford tests much more than other GT programs, and why is there such a difference. Shouldn't the results be more or less the same. Students who qualified testing as GT in HISD Elementary, have to requalify for GT program in middle school and the GT matrix relies heavily on 4th grade Standford scores. It's odd that 5 years of grades don't really count that much at all in the matrix. So you can go from being GT, then not GT. Something just does not make sense. Hope more investigation is done into the GT program and determination of what is truly "gifted" in HISD. Is the GT program really just a feel good about yourself program or what ? The teacher evaluation questions which also is a factor in the GT matrix, are interesting reading. It's hard to imagine the teachers know that much about all their students or interact in ways w/ them to be able to answer some of the questions.

Julia Peterson
Monday, 01/23/2012 - 03:32PM

IMHO, as a teacher of gifted in another state and as an outsider looking in, it appears to me that the criteria used to identify gifted doesn't seem to include checklists of characteristics and behaviors of giftedness. There are also points given for grades AND points given for the percentage in each subject area. That is redundant and makes grades a strong criteria for being in a gifted program. Not every child who makes good grades is gifted. Also the same points are given for a child with a 124 as a child with a 160. The highest number of points should go for the 160 and work its way down. This and the adjustment for minorities are some of the reasons there are so many students who qualify for the gifted program.

George Buzzetti
Tuesday, 01/24/2012 - 06:52PM

This is not for real. Just look at the bar charts of different races and take a look at the percentages of each population. Suddenly, against all known factors whites and asians are about 50%, African-Americans are almost nothing and hispanics have some. All information I have from people who have really been into this subject such as my teacher friend who has a son who was in college at the age of 6 say it is evenly divided between all races and incomes as is special education. Someone is running a game here. Challenge their statistics. Isn't this the district that Rod Paige came from and he said they did not have a drop out rate when he got the job of Secretary of Education for the U.S. and then we found out it was really 50%? Never trust what a school district tells you without the real backup documentation which is able to be crosschecked. Is there a State Department of Education website, like here in California, where you can look at this data and at other school districts? What secret drug do they give the certain students in Houston. Is there a special "Smart Pill?"

Georgia parent
Sunday, 03/25/2012 - 11:43AM

You should look at gifted and talented in Georgia. There was a story in the paper just this morning that said nine percent of Georgia's students are identified as gifted and talented. At my daughter's school, there are 150 fourth graders and 50 of them are in the "TAG" program. Granted, we live in a affluent suburb with highly educated families and those children are probably more likely to have some level of giftedness or talent, but it still seems awfully high. I always wonder how we compare to poorer areas of the state. Our school could just be making up for some school that only has a handful. But overall, nine percent seems like a lot.

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