Education law leaves gifted out of equation

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Some parents say their children have to wait for the rest of the class to catch up.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act demands proof that all children are learning and raises the bar for schools, especially in teaching students on the low end of the public schools' academic scale.

However, some say gifted students aren't learning as much as they could.

With No Child Left Behind, testing drives instruction, said Dr. Rita Fisher, Jackson assistant superintendent.

"We're no longer just covering material. We're ensuring that students are learning," she said.

The Missouri Assessment Program test began in 1997 but has become more important under No Child Left Behind. Now Missouri schools must achieve adequate yearly progress on the communication arts and math MAP tests or they're penalized. Missouri schools are expected to have 100 percent proficiency, meaning every student meets the standards in both math and communication arts by 2014.

But that system means some students are putting their own learning on hold and spending their class time waiting for the rest of the class to catch up, parent Priscilla Hooks says.

Her son, Daniel, is one of those students, she said. In eighth grade he took college algebra classes at Southeast Missouri State University. Now a sophomore, he is on scholarship at Baylor School, a boarding school in Chattanooga, Tenn. At Baylor, Daniel is challenged enough that he doesn't need to take outside classes, Hooks said.

In Jackson schools, gifted elementary and middle school students spend a half-day every week working with two certified gifted instructors. Daniel Hooks participated in the program. Priscilla Hooks said it was better than nothing but not enough.

Fisher was not familiar with Daniel Hooks' specific case but agrees that the special instruction provided gifted students is not adequate.

"A half a day is not going to meet the needs of a gifted child, just as a half a day would not meet the needs of a child who needed special attention in some other way," she said.

For the rest of the week the regular classroom teachers are responsible for meeting the academic needs of those gifted students, Fisher said.

Hooks, a former elementary school teacher, said, "With public school education you have to cater to the lower and average students because they are also expected to perform well. So your higher achieving students are pretty much just lost in the mix."

Missouri National Education Association president Greg Jung concurred.

"It is a real problem we have, especially for gifted students who would be held back by just focusing on how they're going to do on that test for that grade level," Jung said. "It is a serious problem."

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education breaks down MAP scores into 27 subgroups based on sex, race, disabilities and income to help districts identify which groups of students are struggling in a particular area.

There are five levels a student taking the MAP test can test at, ranging from Step 1, meaning the student is substantially behind, to Advanced, meaning the student demonstrates in-depth understanding of all concepts and applies that knowedge in complex ways, according to Missouri Deparement of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Gifted students do not have their own subgroup. Depending on their interest in taking the MAP, gifted students could score at any of the five levels. That makes determining what level those students actually test at difficult.

Fisher said in the past the middle school students who were excelling at math were allowed to take high school classes.

Todd Fuller, a spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said some students will always exceed the skill level of the general class. Ten to 20 percent of students in any given grade level need to be an accelerated program, according to statistics from Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. But none of the elementary and middle schools in Jackson, Cape Girardeau or Scott City have 10 to 20 percent of the entire school in gifted programs.

Standardized tests are not the only area in which gifted students are working below their abilities. Regular classroom work might not challenge them either.

"There are just so many ways to expand learning that you don't have to keep everybody just sitting there doing the same thing," Fisher said.

In Jackson, Scott City and Cape Girardeau, teachers use "differentiated instruction" so the students who have already mastered the skill or assignment can move on to something else.

Differentiated instruction offers assignment options. Under differentiated instruction there are a variety of opportunities to achieve the objectives of the lesson.

Jane Koppenaal, a seventh-grade English teacher and English department chair at Central Junior High School in Cape Girardeau, uses differentiated instruction. She said she strives to "pull the low ones up" using the teaching method.

"Because of students' different approaches to learning, we as teachers can't just give one assignment to meet every student's needs," Koppenaal said. "That's where differentiated instruction comes into play."

In Koppenaal's class and throughout the building, students may have five or six options for completing an assignment. For example, after reading a short story students may choose to make a poster out of the characters, write an advertisement for the short story, write a radio script to present in front of the class or write a traditional essay. Then all of the students would be required to write a plot diagram including a narrative hook, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution to tie everything together.

Students at Central Junior High sometimes work in groups where students of differing abilities are able to help each other, Koppenaal said.While all eight third-graders in Staci Beussink's gifted class at South Elementary in Jackson said they are often bored in their regular classes, some of their mothers welcome the "free time" their children have to read after finishing their work early.

"I think it's good for her because there's so much pressure on her to be excellent all the time since she is in the gifted program," said Heather Blanton, whose daughter, Sarah, is a third-grader at Orchard Elementary. "Everyone just expects so much out of her, but it really gives her a little break."

Jack Jeffers, who attends South Elementary, and Bobby Jansen, who attends Immaculate Conception, said they sketch when they've finished their work instead of reading during this free time.

Jack's mother, Angie Jeffers, said she views the sketching and free time as a break from the rigors of the classroom and does not think they detract from his learning.

Sam Duncan, director of state and federal programs for the Jackson schools, said the students he's observed in classes stay busy and are always actively engaged in learning.

Teachers who may not have the time or ability to offer more than one version of an assignment try to find other ways to challenge their gifted students by asking them to look at their task from a different perspective.

"Most people don't realize that the teachers are able to perceive the students are getting bored and frustrated," said Fuller, the teachers group spokesman. "They have a keen sense of awareness to say, 'OK, this student has it, and what do I need to do to challenge them to the next level?'"

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