By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Brooklyn mom Natalie Barratt had a bad feeling when her four-year-old son Luke Serrano emerged from his February testing session for admittance to the city schools' gifted and talented programs. "The teacher who had administered the test wasn't clear if he'd finished the test," she recalls. After weeks of phone calls with the Department of Education, she had Luke retested. His score this time: an 89, one point too low for acceptance into a G&T kindergarten class. For want of a single correct answer, Luke was officially non-gifted.
In past years, this would have been just one setback in the tangled swirl of bureaucracy and arm-twisting that is commonplace in navigating the city's Department of Education. This year, however, is different. Last fall, the city announced that in place of the patchwork that had been G&T admissions—where some districts offered gifted classrooms at all their schools and others at none, and each school decided on which kids to accept by its own selection process—beginning in 2008 there would be only one way into city-approved G&T classes: by scoring high enough on standardized tests. The goal, says Department of Education spokesperson Andy Jacob, was to "set a single, rigorous standard" that would level the playing field among all parents—and stop the perception of G&T as a haven for wealthier, whiter kids.
But as schools prepare to welcome the first classes of the new G&T regime this fall, it hasn't quite worked out that way. Some parents are angry at what they see as inequities in the tests themselves; others, that contrary to Department of Education promises, not every kindergartner with a high enough test score has been guaranteed a gifted classroom. (As in past years, most of the Bronx and Queens G&T classes will begin in first grade, not kindergarten.) Meanwhile, The New York Times revealed that fewer children from poor districts were getting into gifted programs than under the old, un-level playing field.
The new G&T system relies on a weighted score of two tests—the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, or OLSAT, and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment—to determine eligibility. (Children who are already in the public schools are tested in school; others can make appointments to be tested by the Department of Education.) As initially presented last October, only those children scoring in the 95th percentile or above—the top 5 percent, in other words—against a national sample would gain admittance, with enough classes created in each district to enroll those who qualified. In one of the PowerPoint slideshows that have become a hallmark of the Bloomberg mayoralty, the Department of Education declared that this threshold was scientifically determined: "Research on G&T education shows [that] children in the top 5 percent need significant curricular modification and adaptation in order to succeed academically."
Yet Linda Silverman, director of the Colorado-based Gifted Development Center that the Department of Education cites as the source of this research, says there's no evidence the top 5 percent need special schooling. Rather, she argues, it's the top 2 to 3 percent—in stats lingo, two standard deviations beyond the norm, the same measure that is used for low-scoring students to be deemed in need of special ed. "The research is very solid at both ends of the spectrum," says Silverman, "that when you're two standard deviations beyond the norm, you need specially trained teachers."
In fact, the city did end up readjusting its standard—but down, not up. This April, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced that in order to "afford more students the opportunity to enroll in gifted programs," kids scoring in the 90th percentile or above would now be admitted to gifted programs. Jacob says the goal was to "give as many qualified students as possible" a shot at enriched classes. (More cynical observers noted that several school districts wouldn't have had enough 95th-percentile scorers to fill even a single class.) Silverman's organization, meanwhile, argues that children scoring in the top 10 percent "are not statistically or developmentally different" from those scoring between 85 and 90—from Luke Serrano, in other words—"and it is not justifiable to single them out for special treatment."
Jacob insists that regardless of where the bar was set, the important thing is that there's now a single standard. In prior years, he says, "you had some districts where they were letting kids into gifted programs who tested literally at the third percentile."
Many parents, though, are questioning whether standardized tests should be the sole admissions criterion, especially for four-year-olds who may never have seen a test before. Yvette Ortiz was hopeful that her youngest daughter could follow in the footsteps of her older sister, who qualified for the Lower East Side grade school NEST (New Explorations Into Science, Technology and Math) under the old system of one-on-one teacher evaluations. "She recognizes words that my gifted daughter did not at the same age," says Ortiz of her youngest. "And she is so much more advanced academically."
Instead, she scored a 40. Ortiz later found out that her daughter had been pulled out of snack time for her test, which was conducted by a staffer who had never administered it previously. She says she later told Department of Education gifted programs czar Anna Commitante, "They pulled her out of snack. Do you understand that for a four-year-old, that's a major part of her day?" Commitante's e-mailed response, according to Ortiz: "My daughter was 'immature and fatigued.' "