Emilio Handall
Paul Wellman

Some are born GATE, some achieve GATEness, and some have GATEness thrust upon ’em. In the Santa Barbara Unified School District, however, some are English learners, socioeconomically disadvantaged, or Hispanic, composing a respective 2, 5, and 5 percent of the gifted-and-talented education (GATE) classes.

Those statistics were revealed in a presentation at Tuesday night’s school board meeting, leading Emilio Handall, assistant superintendent for elementary education, to suggest the district rethink the manner in which it selects students for the GATE program. The numbers also led school board president Monique Limón to question whether assessment tools employed by the district—especially if they can be studied for—accurately identify “GATEness.”

In the Santa Barbara district, potentially “gifted” 2nd graders are referred by parents, teachers, or selected by their standardized exam scores to take the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT), the results of which determine whether they possess naturally enhanced nervous systems. And while district staffers fell short of questioning the merits of such a test conducted upon the rapidly developing brains of young children, they are questioning their own interpretations of the test’s scores.

In an effort to add diversity to the GATE program, about 100 more Latino students were tested in 2012 than in previous years, but only three more qualified for the program. While 24 percent of non-Latino students who tested qualified, 10 percent of Latino students and 14 percent of English learners (Latino and non-Latino) qualified. Those numbers were crunched by the district’s GATE coordinator, Harriet Whaley, who also did some research into cognitive testing.

She stumbled upon a study that found when English learners take the CogAT ​— ​as opposed to other cognitive tests employed by other districts to distinguish GATE students ​— ​they score along a bell curve similar to that of native English speakers, although about 10 points lower, reaffirming her belief that the CogAT is the best indicator of GATE readiness. She also found a study that compared the test scores of 2,000 students in Waco, Texas ​— ​with demographics very similar to the Santa Barbara district ​— ​in which English learners predictably scored worse on the verbal section of the test but also (less) worse on the test’s other two sections. If Santa Barbara adjusted its entrance requirements to take those gaps into account, 29 more English learners (for a total of 64) would have been accepted into the GATE program. The percentage of those accepted would then be 26, right in line with the 24 percent of English-proficient students accepted.

Whaley therefore suggested that the district retro-qualify 29 students and in the future test all 2nd graders for GATE. As the item was on the conference agenda, it was merely up for discussion and not any sort of formal vote. Trustees Kate Parker and Limón worried about the cost of testing all 2nd graders. But Limón also suggested that some parents can and do prepare their children for the CogAT while others cannot spare the expense, therefore creating a disparity. Although one can supposedly not study for cognitive ability tests, a perfunctory web search found test preparation materials and sample questions.

“That goes to the key question,” said Superintendent David Cash, “whether GATE students are gifted and talented or something else.” And, he pointed out to the board earlier in the evening, should Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal to eliminate categorical funding make it alive through the Legislature, the state would no longer issue money to districts for GATE courses (or many other programs, including English tutoring, counseling, administrative training, and class size reductions). Brown would like local districts to have near-complete control over their funding, meaning that the Santa Barbara district could hypothetically abolish GATE classes altogether, as unlikely as that may be. The budget also proposes more money for the underrepresented populations that are excluded from GATE. It does this on a per-district basis, however, so that a majority-minority school that is not within a majority-minority district will get the short end of the appropriation bill.

That policy would also enervate the Santa Barbara district’s ongoing efforts to erase inequities and convince parents to send their kids to their neighborhood schools. Two mothers of Monroe Elementary School students just so happened to show up to public comment in order to affirm their support for such efforts. Monroe is sometimes overshadowed by its Mesa neighbor, Washington Elementary, because of the latter’s self-contained GATE classrooms, but every elementary school in the district, Monroe PTA president Alison Jordan reminded the public, offers a GATE program.


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