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Seeking To Identify the Gifted Among L.E.P. Students

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SELLS, ARIZ.--As June Maker and her assistants drove through the Sonoran Desert in a van loaded with toys one day last month, their intent was not to bear gifts, but to find them.

Here on the Tohono O'Odham Indian Reservation, where most of the children live in poverty, speak a combination of O'Odham, English, and Spanish, and stand a good chance of dropping out of school, Ms. Maker and her colleagues hoped to identify children with potential for great academic success.

At Indian Oasis Primary School, the educators distributed the toys to small groups of 2nd graders and asked them to perform a number of tasks, including building objects and telling stories.

"We are watching children solve problems,'' Ms. Maker, an associate professor of special education at the University of Arizona, said as she observed one group.

She and her assistants later talked excitedly about one boy who used plastic shapes to solve a geometric puzzle in a way they had never seen. They were enthusiastic, too, about a girl who seemed to take charge of her group and lead it in using pieces of cardboard to build farm animals. And they spoke animatedly about another girl who manipulated little plastic people to weave a detailed story of a family doing chores.

By watching the children solve problems, Ms. Maker and her assistants were themselves attempting to solve a vexing problem--the widely acknowledged failure of many educators to recognize and develop the intellectual potential of language-minority students.

Several studies have shown--and many experts in the field agree--that disproportionately high numbers of limited-English-proficient students and other minorities are placed in lower-level classes and that, conversely, too few are assigned to higher-level classes and programs for the gifted and talented.

Some estimates place the number of language-minority children in the nation's schools at eight million, and such youngsters are expected to account for the majority of the school-aged population in 50 or more cities by 2000.

The Education Department estimates that about 5 percent of students nationally are served by programs for the gifted and talented. Although the department has not broken down the national figure by racial and ethnic groups, statistics from individual states indicate that the underrepresentation of various minority groups, particularly Hispanics, has been widespread.

In California, for example, Hispanic students accounted for 34.4 percent of public school students in the 1990-91 school year, but just 13 percent of those served by programs for the gifted and talented.

One result of the overrepresentation of language-minority students in remedial classes, experts say, is that the national education goal to educate all children is undermined. It has also caused some districts to run afoul of federal civil-rights laws requiring them not to discriminate on the basis of nationality in providing government services.

Recently, many educators and children's advocates have responded by calling for the elimination of ability grouping and the creation of heterogeneous classrooms. (See Education Week, Jan. 13, 1993.)

But others, including Ms. Maker, defend ability grouping and are focusing their efforts on developing unbiased mechanisms for assessing and placing L.E.P. students and other minorities in appropriate classrooms.

"The argument that, because some youngsters are underrepresented in these programs, you should abolish the program, is totally counterproductive to these kids who should be identified,'' said Peter D. Rosenstein, the executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children.

"The object,'' Mr. Rosenstein added, "is to identify every child and meet their needs within the public school system, within the regular classroom, and within the gifted and talented education programs.''

"One thing we do know, and no one will dispute,'' he continued, "is that these children are not being identified as well as they should be, and that we are missing children and not letting them reach their full potential.''

Stuck in Low Tracks

Elaine C. Lopez, a 2nd-grade teacher who has worked in schools on the Tohono O'Odham reservation for 18 years, said she is hard pressed to find success stories among the children in her earliest classes who seemed bright but who were not given the special attention afforded children in gifted and talented programs.

"Some of them are in prison today, which is sad,'' Ms. Lopez said.

James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, asserted that most schools tend to take the L.E.P. students in their bilingual-education or English-as-a-second-language classes and place them in remedial tracks, regardless of their intellectual abilities.

Studies have shown that the poor performance of these students on the aptitude tests used to place them in regular classrooms may be due in part to the fact that bilingual-education teachers typically fail to teach language or higher-order-thinking skills effectively. (See Education Week, Feb. 20, 1991.)

By placing few such students in higher-level classes, the schools send them the message "that they are somehow less able than the majority population,'' said Beverly J. Irby, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Tex.

But Anne Wheelock, the author of Crossing the Tracks, a book on efforts to eliminate ability grouping, noted that exceptional language-minority children who do get into such classes often feel stress as a result of being separated from other members of their ethnic group, and are forced "to choose between their commitments to get the best education and to be loyal to their peers.''

Although Ms. Maker defends the existence of separate programs for gifted and talented children--arguing that some children do, indeed, have more intellectual capacity than others and suffer in regular classroom settings--she nonetheless hardly comes across as a defender of the status quo.

Ms. Maker believes that many children in programs for the gifted and talented do not belong there because they are not, in fact, gifted. Rather, she said, they were labeled "gifted and talented'' simply because they are high achievers, a reflection of their advantaged socioeconomic background.

"They are performing up to their capacity, while many of the children who don't have those same advantages are performing below their capacity,'' Ms. Maker said.

Children from less advantaged backgrounds, Ms. Maker noted, are less likely to enter kindergarten or 1st grade with practice in writing, reading, drawing, or other skills. As a result, she added, they stand much less chance of impressing teachers.

Moreover, if youngsters come from cultural or linguistic backgrounds other than Western European, Ms. Maker said, their families may have emphasized certain linguistic skills, such as oral storytelling, that matter little in a classroom focused on writing and reading.

'Very Little Progress'

More than 30 states now require school districts to provide programs for gifted and talented students, and districts feel compelled by civil-rights concerns to insure that adequate numbers of minority students are served.

Yet, few L.E.P. students end up in gifted classes. A big part of the problem is that most existing assessment methods fail to adequately gauge such students' academic ability and achievement, said Else V. Hamayan, the director of training and services at the Illinois Resource Center, a state-funded resource center for language-minority education.

A report issued by the Council of Chief State School Officers last year found that few states have mechanisms for monitoring the academic status of L.E.P. students after they are placed in English-only classes, and that many states do not make the distinction between assessments for language proficiency and tests of academic achievement.

Such omissions, the report said, both prevent the students from receiving appropriate services and obstruct efforts to determine how well they are served.

Despite such findings, Ms. Hamayan said the field of assessment as a whole appears to be moving in a direction that will improve educators' understanding of language minorities.

The new trend in the field, she noted, is to examine students over longer periods of time, to be more adaptable to cultural or linguistic differences, and to push assessors "to look for information outside of the classroom in order to interpret assessment results.''

Nonetheless, researchers in the field are still struggling to develop instruments for assessing the academic achievement of L.E.P. students and appear far from unanimous on how to gauge such students' abilities, several experts interviewed for this story agreed.

In practice, Ms. Hamayan said, "there still is an adherence to standardized, score-based assessments'' in schools.

Acknowledged Ramsay W. Selden, the director of the state education assessment center for the C.C.S.S.O., "The current state of the art is not very far along.''

Referring to L.E.P. students, Mr. Selden said, "You just don't have assessment techniques that respond to their special situation.''

Although in-depth, one-on-one psychological examinations present one alternative, experts say the approach is too time-consuming and expensive to be used to screen large numbers of students, especially in the cash-strapped urban districts that serve many language minorities.

Still, experts point out, all L.E.P. children, regardless of their ability, are likely to benefit from improvements in assessment procedures being driven by those who, like Ms. Maker, want to better identify such students for gifted or special-education programs.

Gardner Sows Ideas

Ms. Maker has largely abandoned hope of identifying gifted L.E.P. students using standard intelligence tests, which she describes as fraught with bias and limited in their views of intelligence.

Instead, Ms. Maker has improvised an intelligence test that, she maintains, can be administered to students of any background. One adult can administer the test to a half-dozen students, she said, and the supplies needed to test 30 students at a time cost about $500--significantly more per student than the standard pen-and-paper intelligence tests, but much less than an individual psychological evaluation.

Ms. Maker has based her test largely on the writings of Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University. Mr. Gardner's theory of giftedness posits that intelligence is not just verbal and mathematical, as is commonly assumed, but can also be spatial, musical, or kinesthetic, or reflected in one's self-knowledge or understanding of others.

Patricia O'Connell Ross, the director of the U.S. Education Department's Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Education Program, which was established in 1988 to serve L.E.P. students and other special populations, describes Mr. Gardner as the leading thinker influencing efforts to identify giftedness in disadvantaged children.

Of the 65 such initiatives funded by her office, at least four "are going full tilt'' in attempting to implement programs based on Mr. Gardner's theories, Ms. Ross said.

In her screening, Ms. Maker provides children with plastic and cardboard shapes and toys and asks them to perform such tasks as matching pieces, building certain geometric shapes, creating animals, or telling stories.

In keeping with Mr. Gardner's theories, the children progress from trying to solve problems with one known answer, to attempting to solve problems with several possible answers, to working to create and solve open-ended problems of their own.

"What we are looking for is not intelligence or creativity alone, but the ability to solve a variety of problem types,'' Ms. Maker said.

Searching for Sparks

At the Indian Oasis Primary School, Ms. Maker and her assistants, most of them graduate students from the University of Arizona, repeatedly switched the groups they observed in an effort to guard against bias, and then gathered to compare notes on the children.

The class's teacher, Venice Maldonado, looked on and expressed hope they would identify as gifted one boy who seemed bored with the classroom instruction and who had started to become a discipline problem.

"I was just hoping there might be something else for him to do besides work in the classroom,'' Ms. Maldonado said.

Mary Ann Marino, one of a handful of certified teachers of the gifted and talented at the school, said she planned to provide those students identified by Ms. Maker with a few hours of pull-out instruction each week. In addition, she said she would help their regular teachers choose specific strategies for meeting the students' needs.

Ms. Maker has also been asked to identify gifted and talented children in Navajo schools and in the Tucson school district, which under the terms of a voluntary settlement of a 1979 desegregation suit must work to increase the representation of Hispanics and other minorities in its gifted programs.

In a development that could test the validity of her procedure with other kinds of minority groups, Ms. Maker has been asked to observe the mostly black and low-income students in 16 public schools in Charlotte, N.C.

Improvements Improvised

Like Ms. Maker, others have improvised their own mechanisms for identifying gifted members of language-minority populations.

Several school systems, including the one in Baldwin Park, Calif., ask students for their opinions of their classmates. Another approach, being used by the San Diego city schools and the Tustin, Calif., school district, asks teachers to make a concerted effort to present lessons in a way that will enable students to demonstrate their giftedness.

Ms. Ross of the Javits program said she has concluded that one of the best ways to identify gifted and talented children "is to give all kids an opportunity to perform at higher levels.''

"You don't look at a bunch of kids standing around and talking and say, 'That kid is going to be a good dancer,''' Ms. Ross said. "You get them to dance.''

One of the more widely used instruments for identifying gifted L.E.P. students is a well-established nonverbal intelligence test called the Raven's Progressive Matrices.

Although generally praised as being free of cultural, linguistic, or gender bias, the test, which asks children to solve problems using abstract figures and designs, nevertheless may not measure all forms of intelligence, experts said. In addition, they noted, the test must generally be used in conjunction with other tests and identification procedures.

At this year's national NABE conference, educators were also urged to use a nonverbal, cartoon-illustrated test developed almost three decades ago by Edward A. De Avila, now the director of a testing firm called Linguametrics.

Mr. De Avila said the test, though not widely used, is valuable primarily as a preliminary screening device.

A Deficit or an Asset?

Ms. Irby of Sam Houston State is among the researchers looking for new ways to identify gifted L.E.P. children. Ms. Irby has been collecting data on 6,000 children in Texas to construct a profile of gifted Hispanic children and to determine how such children differ from their gifted non-Hispanic peers.

The study, to be completed later this summer, examines Hispanic children who were placed in gifted programs, Hispanics who were deemed average, and those who were regarded by their teachers as potentially gifted but who failed to make the cutoff score set as part of the identification procedure.

"What we are suspecting,'' Ms. Irby said, "is that those children who are currently identified and placed in [gifted] programs may have more of an acculturation to the American culture.''

The Council for Exceptional Children, a nonprofit organization based in Reston, Va., also tentatively plans to undertake research "to see what giftedness means in each cultural group,'' according to Grace Z. Duran, the organization's special assistant to the executive director for ethnic and multicultural concerns.

In marked contrast to the common perception of limited-English proficiency as a deficit, some researchers are advancing the notion that children's intelligence is enhanced by having to learn two languages.

For example, Kenji Hakuta, a professor of education at Stanford University, said such students, in learning "two different systems of representation and knowledge,'' become aware of the contrasts between the two.

"It leads not only to cognitive growth,'' Mr. Hakuta said, "but to meta-cognitive and meta-linguistic growth, which is knowledge about one's knowledge and knowledge about one's language.''

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