In order to realize their greatest intellectual potential, children need to be challenged constantly and stimulated in their school studies. Grouping children by grades is an attempt to meet this need. Special groupings within class levels also are needed for children who progress at different rates than most of their counterparts. For those who are exceptionally bright, for example, the state of California allows schools to enroll students in Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) programs.
But, as outlined in two recent articles by Times' writer Catherine Gewertz, GATE programs in Orange County currently are under fire. The strongest criticism comes from those who say these programs fail to recognize minority children with special gifts adequately and nourish them.
In fact, among the state's three largest urban counties, Orange County has the deepest inequities between the number of minority students in its schools and the number chosen to participate in GATE programs. It obviously needs to do a much better job of identifying minority children whose intelligence may not necessarily show up on the traditional Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests. That may seem difficult, but there are models of success nearby and even within the county.
Some educators say traditional IQ tests are part of the problem. Many believe they are skewed in favor of children who have highly developed language and mathematics skills. These critics say that the tests fail to recognize other measures of intelligence, such as musical or other artistic talent, or leadership. Others say that children without adequate English language skills may score poorly, even though they may be highly intelligent.
Since 1980, all school districts in the state have been under legislative pressure to correct racial inequities in their GATE programs. Tustin schools have tried one of the more radical reforms, which, among other things, includes assessing children's musical and interpersonal abilities. Baldwin Park schools in Los Angeles County also have sought new ways of finding talented children, including asking students themselves to point out gifted classmates. This has led teachers to examine students more closely who might otherwise have been overlooked.
San Diego County has among the best efforts. There school officials decided that many of the best minds were those of children who had difficulty expressing themselves verbally, especially if their native language wasn't English. Schools now use a test that is designed to transcend language and cultural differences, in part by posing problems that can be solved visually. With the help of federal grants, schools also have been retraining bilingual teachers to better recognize gifts in their minority students.
As a result of this and other efforts, San Diego County schools have improved their record greatly when it comes to the number of minority students who are selected for GATE programs. These changes have not come without trepidation, however. Parents of children who do well on traditional IQ tests have expressed concern that GATE programs are being "watered down" so that they may no longer provide the same level of intellectual stimulation for children who qualified under previous criteria.
But Orange County schools must meet the challenge of keeping GATE standards high while expanding the program to include more gifted minority children, as their neighbors have done. That will require them to experiment with new ways to assess the intelligence and talents of their students.