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Interest in College Talent-Search Programs For Young Students

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By Mark Walsh

This summer, thousands of bright, young students will flock to college campuses and crack the books.

At Johns Hopkins University and several satellite campuses, they will study ancient Greek, genetics, or "Fast-Paced Physics with Calculus."

At Duke University, they are signing up for Russian I, number theory, or "The Roman World."

And at the University of Denver, the offerings include introduction to robotics, neuropsychology, and fractal computer graphics.

While such classes would be challenging even to many college students, most of those enrolled will be middle-school students, ages 12 to 14, who have entered academic "talent searches"--programs that identify young students who could benefit from advanced studies.

Pioneered by Johns Hopkins some two decades ago, regional talent-search programs for pre-high-school students are now found at universities throughout the country. Although the programs are not officially linked, similar kinds of offerings are available at Duke, Denver, Arizona State University, and Northwestern University.

Many colleges offer summer programs for high-school students, and young people of various ages enroll in other academic activities during the summer break, from computer camps to a "National LawCamp" set to open in Miami Shores, Fla., in July.

But the talent-search programs are perhaps the most academically rigorous activities targeted to pupils in the middle grades.

Educators generally laud the programs as a way to identify gifted students early enough to offer them meaningful direction toward more challenging academic opportunities.

In addition, supporters say, they serve an often-overlooked segment of the student population and can provide a boost for pupils stifled by subpar school systems.

"They are filling a need," said James J. Gallagher, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina and an expert in the education of gifted children. "In the absence of other kinds of things being done by the public schools, this is a nice add-on."

Middle-school students "tend to be poorly served," added Jill Burruss, coordinator of the University of Denver's Rocky Mountain Talent Search. "We try to provide an identification method so their abilities come to the notice of parents, school officials, and the students themselves."

The programs have attracted a steadily increasing number of applicants over the past decade, organizers say. Some 120,000 students nationwide have signed up for the initial talent-search tests in the past year, and roughly 5,000 attended the university-based classes last summer.

At Johns Hopkins, some 35,000 students took part in the talent search this year, 2,000 more than in the previous year. The Hopkins program, the most extensive in the nation, enrolled some 3,200 pupils last summer at various campuses in the Middle Atlantic and Northeastern states, as well as on the West Coast.

Duke University, whose Talent Identification Program covers most of the Southern states, enrolled 1,000 students in its special programs last summer. Northwestern's summer program served 450 pupils drawn mostly from its Midwest Talent Search, while the University of Denver's special classes registered 130 young students.

A similar program at Arizona State University, concentrated mainly in that state, serves middle-school students as part of a K-12 program for the gifted.

The first such "talent search" began at Johns Hopkins in 1972 as part of a study of mathematically precocious youths that used math scores from the Scholastic Aptitude Test to identify gifted pupils and offer them specially designed advanced coursework.

In 1979, the university established a Center for Academically Talented Youth and expanded its talent-search program beyond math courses for gifted Maryland students to include courses in math, science, and the humanities for students throughout the Middle Atlantic states.

As developed by Johns Hopkins and the other universities, the identification of gifted pupils through the talent searches is a two-step process.

Students are first identified by their teachers or counselors by scoring in the top 3 percent on a standardized achievement test, such as the Iowa Basic Skills Test or the California Achievement Test. They then take one of the two major college-entrance exams, the Scholastic Aptitude Test or the American College Testing program assessment.

Test-score requirements vary at the different programs.

At Hopkins, for example, students generally must score above the mean for college-bound seniors on the sat to qualify for the programs offered by the Center for Academically Talented Youth. For example, for a 12-year-old student to take a math and science course in the program, he would have to score at least 500 on the math portion and get a combined math and verbal score of at least 930.

The growing interest in the programs is reflected in the increased number of pre-high-school students taking the sat Largely because of the talent searches, testing officials say, that number has more than doubled in the past decade, from 44,000 in 1980-81 to nearly 100,000 this past year.

Some critics have questioned the use of the sat and the act to select students for the talent-search programs, arguing that middle-school pupils are too far "'out of grade" for these tests.

But program sponsors maintain that the tests are reliable predictors of ability and that they provide the young students with practice for tests they will take again in high school.

"We feel our students are more than adequately predicted by these tests," said Ms. Burruss of the University of Denver.

"For the most part, most kids are comfortable with the test," she added. "They view it as a game. They love going in with those 11th- and 12th-graders because it makes them feel powerful."

Once test scores are in, the talent-search programs offer a variety of services to students and their parents in addition to summer study.

In the Duke Talent Identification Program, for example, participants are given an educational-opportunity guide that lists more than 375 programs for gifted students offered by a wide range of institutions. The program also sponsors statewide and regional awards ceremonies to honor top-scoring students, as do the other talent searches.

Under the Johns Hopkins program, all participants are also invited to special symposia and are eligible for one-course scholarships at nearby colleges and universities.

Program sponsors say the search itself is a valuable opportunity to identify gifted students, even if those students do not participate in the summer academic programs.

"One major purpose of this is to help local school districts provide services for gifted students," said Barry Grant, associate director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern.

The Denver program, for instance, encourages gifted students and their parents to consider various options for accelerated study, such as self-paced instruction, advanced-placement courses, or enrolling in regular college courses during high school.

The summer academic programs, however, are the bread and butter of the talent searches.

The programs are held on college campuses, usually for three-week sessions that involve intensive daytime class sessions, along with field trips and other activities. Most students live on the campus during the program.

While they draw on the resources of the sponsoring universities, the courses are specially tailored to younger students. Typically, they resemble advanced high-school-level studies; secondary-school teachers are often hired as the instructors.

At the Duke summer residential program, students enroll in a single course during a three-week term and complete the equivalent of a year of high-school work in precalculus mathematics, physics, philosophy, a foreign language, or another subject.

At the University of Denver, stucan enroll in a two- or four-week session, selecting two classes that last three hours each per day, plus two hours of homework at night. A student might take chemistry or science fiction in the morning, neuropsychology or Latin in the afternoon.

"This isn't a typical summer camp," said Ms. Burrus of the Denver program. "It's very challenging and stimulating work."

The far-flung Johns Hopkins summer programs include a commuter program at the university's campus in Baltimore and residential programs at Dickinson College and Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, Skidmore College in New York, Wheaton College in Massachusetts, the University of Redlands in California, and the College du Leman, in Versoix, Switzerland.

As in the Duke program, students study one course intensively during the three-week Johns Hopkins sessions.

The philosophy of the program is to provide an "optimal match" between gifted students and challenging coursework so that the students do not become bored with school, said William Durden, director of Johns Hopkins's Center for Talented Youth.

"The program capitalizes on flexibility and the concern for individuals," he said.

Ms. Burrus added that gifted students "need an opportunity to interact with their mental peers."

That can be especially important, she noted, for students from rural areas who are "truly one of a kind."

Tuition for the summer sessions typically ranges from about $1,200 to $1,500 for a three-week residential program. The two-week program at the University of Denver costs $875, while the charge for the four-week session is $1,750.

Officials at all of the programs say they set aside money for financial aid for needy students. The Johns Hopkins program estimates that 60 to 70 students will attend this summer on full scholarships through a private grant, with several hundred others receiving partial scholarships.

At Northwestern, Mr. Grant said, "nobody who has requested aid and has been accepted has not come because they did not get enough aid."

But he acknowledged that "the cost of the program deters a number of families."

"It is generally true it attracts families of above-average income,'' he said. "But the center is interested in getting disadvantaged gifted kids into the program."

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