By STEPHEN HEGARTY
(c) St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001
TAMPA -- Florida may soon change the way it finds gifted schoolchildren, by eliminating the need for a top-notch IQ score and adding creativity and test scores to the mix.
Judging by the initial response, the new plan could be as controversial as the old one.
"I wonder if we're not exchanging one set of problems for another," said Terry Wilson, who is director of the group Parents for Able Learner Students and supports scrapping the old plan.
The old plan, which held minority and low-income children to a different standard in an effort to increase their numbers in gifted programs, was challenged in federal court by parents in Tampa and St. Petersburg. That lawsuit was settled last year after the state agreed to devise a new plan that does not use race or ethnicity as a factor.
What the state came up with is a proposal with less emphasis on IQ, but a new emphasis on test scores. The proposed plan balances several factors -- IQ, test scores, critical thinking skills and creativity -- to find gifted children regardless of their background. But educators throughout the state have concerns that it might unintentionally exclude minority and low-income children.
"When I look at the plan, I see a lot of middle-class kids getting in, but not a lot of other kids," said Sally Baynard, a teacher of gifted children in Pinellas County. "With the emphasis on achievement, instead of IQ keeping children out, it's going to be test scores."
Baynard's concerns were echoed by many around the state. Many also were frustrated that much about the new plan still is unknown. For instance, how will the state measure creativity? Educators also worry that too few teachers and parents know about the plan, which will have a dramatic impact on how the state educates its brightest children.
"There are lots of unanswered questions," said Mary Ann Ratliff, director of gifted education for Hillsborough County schools. "I'm worried about the child who thinks and speaks in another language. I'm worried about underachievers who don't have the test scores. I'm worried about the child that does not have an advocate at home. Are we going to miss these children?"
The concerns about the new plan underscore the difficulty inherent in the task. Most educators agree that the old plan needed to be revised or scrapped altogether. The lawsuit and settlement served to force a change already in the works.
Now comes the task of creating an identification process that is not so broad that any smart child would qualify and not so exclusionary that deserving children would be left out.
* * *
By any standard, Karen Cherian is an exceptionally bright child.
The eighth-grader at Memorial Middle School in Tampa recently won a countywide math competition. Her bright classmates work on algebra, while she works on calculus through a program with Stanford University. Duke University picked her for their talent identification program.
But would she qualify as gifted under the new plan? No. At least, not at the time her parents tried to get her into a gifted program.
"I didn't have the IQ score," said Karen, 13, who came to the United States from India in 1999. She scored 126 on the IQ test, when she needed a 130 or above. Her math scores were exceptional, but her verbal scores were only average -- not surprising for a bright girl in a new country learning a new language.
Under the new plan, an IQ score below 130 could be offset by exceptional scores on a standardized test, such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or the Stanford Achievement Test. But Karen hadn't taken any standardized tests.
"It's obvious that she's smart enough, but she couldn't show it; she didn't have an SAT score," said Carol Hardy-Ballas, a math and science teacher at Memorial who has worked with Karen. "It's amazing, but I don't think she would get in under this plan."
The state's existing gifted identification plan was designed to avoid missing children such as Karen.
For years, the key that opened the door to gifted classes was a high IQ score. A score of 130 is the general standard. But some groups of children were terribly underrepresented -- black children, Hispanic children, low-income children, and those who spoke other languages.
In 1991, the state ordered school districts to come up with a second plan to include more minority children. They called it Plan B. It allowed districts to accept minority or low-income children who had high IQ scores, but not the 130, so long as those children showed other signs of giftedness.
That program did diversify gifted classes (Karen was identified as gifted under Plan B), but it came under fire in 1999 when a Tampa woman went to court to complain that it unlawfully used different standards for children of different races. Raylene Worley's daughter Stephanie had a high IQ score, but it wasn't enough to qualify her for gifted, unless she was black or Hispanic. Stephanie is white.
A federal lawsuit claiming racial discrimination followed and forced the state to make changes that had been under discussion for some time.
The new plan works as a sort of a sliding scale. An IQ score of 130, along with a very high score on FCAT or another standardized test will get you in. You could qualify with a slightly lower IQ score, so long as you had an extremely high set of reading and math test scores and evidence of superior creativity or critical thinking skills. Even a child with a low IQ score could get in, so long as that was offset by exceptional test scores for more than a year and superior creativity and critical thinking skills.
The idea is to weigh several factors and get away from the reliance on IQ scores, and to scrap Plan B.
The biggest concern is that IQ will no longer be the key, but that it simply will be replaced by test scores as the predominant factor determining giftedness. Given the persistent achievement gap on test scores between minority and non-minority students, the fear is that gifted programs again will have few minority children.
"The program has historically been known to exclude minority children," said Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida NAACP. Even with Plan B, minorities make up a smaller percentage of the program than they do of the school population.
"I'm concerned about a new plan excluding children. The plan says nothing about children's abilities, but it says a lot about tests."
The new plan must be approved by the Florida Cabinet, sitting as the state Board of Education. That vote is scheduled in August. If approved, it would be implemented in 2002.
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