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Thursday, May 17, 2012

The problem is not the test, but what comes before it

It is a high stress time of year for many families. Not only is NAPLAN national testing taking centre stage in classrooms in Years 3 5 7 and 9, but for those wishing to have the opportunity to attend Perth Modern School, WA’s only academically selective high school, or one of the other academically selective programs,  the GATE testing is looming.

Many parents feel their gifted child’s future rests in the results of this one test. Discussions about whether coaching is beneficial and whether those who are coached will secure places ahead of those who have greater potential but didn’t perform so well on the day abound at this time every year. Discussions about the appropriateness of using a single test to choose the students who are offered places have a tendency to become heated. Questions are even raised in Parliament.

Many parents with gifted children whose IQ test results show their child’s high potential
feel their child should not have to compete for a place. They already have evidence that their child is sufficiently able.

I agree that there are flaws in the selection process and places in the selective schools and programs are in woefully short supply, and sympathise with parents frustrations, however, I do think the test finds what it is designed to find.

Let me explain.

If you are planning to begin offering programs or provisions for gifted students in a school, you must decide what you can offer before you begin to identify students. Different students benefit from different opportunities. Identifying students with strengths in language is not a lot of use if the program you will offer is maths. Identifying those with strong non verbal reasoning will not find the students most suited to a language based program (unless they are also strong in the verbal domain) but would probably find a group more suited to a hands on problem solving or building unit. Knowing what you will offer is essential to identifying the right students.

Perth Modern School, WA’s only selective high school, identifies itself as a school for academically talented students. Their website mentions that they are gifted and, as Gagne’s Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent (DMGT) is the model of giftedness in use in Western Australia (identifying the top 10% of population in terms of potential as gifted), the students at Perth Modern School will be gifted. This does not however mean it is a school for gifted students – it is a school for academically excellent students.

There are a number of other selective programs operating in various government secondary schools in WA covering a wide range of fields - aeronautics, hockey, art, performing arts and languages among others, and of course, academic programs. If students were randomly assigned to one of these programs simply because they were identified as gifted (by one means or another), there would be an uproar. These programs are for students with particular talents. The Academic Talent Programs (ATP’s) which operate in a number of schools in addition to Perth Modern School are no different. These programs for academically able students are called, rightly or wrongly, Academic Talent Programs – not gifted programs.

The test students take for selection is designed to identify academically talented students – those performing at a high level. Parts of the test measure achievement levels while other sections provide insight into potential. As this part of the test is not one that can be much improved by coaching, it can provide useful information to those making the selections as it can shed light on whether a child is gifted but may have performed poorly in the testing, or whether a child is perhaps less able but is achieved highly due to a high degree of effort or coaching. These insights, if taken into account, can provide valuable insights into how likely a student is to cope with the work load and pace of curriculum delivery.

Remember, it is possible to be gifted without being talented, to have the potential without exhibiting exceptional performance, on a test or in the classroom. And this is where the problem may lie. Gifted students who are not achieving at a high level compared to others who seek selection may miss out.

If highly gifted students are missing out on securing places, the fault is not in the test itself but in the fact that they may have had fewer opportunities to develop their intellectual potential into academic talent in the years leading up to sitting the test. With few opportunities available in the early years and PEAC, where it is available, only available to students in Yr 5, 6 and 7, there is plenty of time for gifted potential to languish prior to GATE testing.

Perhaps the GATE test is poorly named. By including gifted in the name it suggests to parents that it is identifying gifted students when in fact it is doing what it set out to do – to identify academically talented students, for academic talent programs.

If a child of average ability only attended school for half of the time we would be concerned and we would expect their progress to be less than it should have been. When our gifted students are in classes where they are only learning half the time and are effectively spending significant parts of the day waiting for others to grasp concepts or finish, or in needless repetition of work they have already mastered, their progress too is restricted.

There is a perception that gifted children don’t need any special provisions, that they will be fine because they are bright. In fact this is far from the case. Many of our most gifted students are languishing, most are underachieving, very few are in educational settings that meet their learning needs for more than a brief portion of the week, the majority do not have access to anything beyond the regular classroom. Yet they are gifted all day, every day. The do not suddenly become gifted at the time of selection for PEAC, high school programs or any other options which become available.

With teachers inadequately trained in identifying and differentiating for gifted students in the years before the testing, and schools unfamiliar or unwilling to provide settings in which the intellectual (and social) needs of these students can develop appropriately there is much more that needs attention than the selection test.

If development of talent requires a systematic process as outlined in Gagne’s model, it should be available from the time a child enters the system. And then a test to select academically talented students for high school programs may actually select our most gifted students.

Looking for them at such a late stage is missing the boat on our greatest natural resource.

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