Florida ponders change in requirements for gifted students

Published: Monday, January 22, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 11:11 p.m.

LAKELAND — The state's new plan for its brightest students has left some in the dark.

The Florida Department of Education wants to change the way schools define "gifted" students by lowering the intelligence quotient (IQ) requirement from 130 to 120 and including performance on standardized tests like the FCAT as additional criteria.

More than 3,000 Polk students are enrolled in the gifted program and local school officials say they expect the number could double or triple if the state Board of Education adopts the new plan.

The proposed rule also would require for the first time that every Florida student be screened for eligibility in a gifted program, a potentially expensive and time-consuming task in a school district such as Polk County, which has more than 90,000 students. The district now gives IQ tests only to students referred by teachers or parents who believe their child may be gifted.

Gifted programs, designed for exceptionally intelligent students, fall under the special education rubric because students in the program often have special needs, requiring a more challenging or enriching curriculum to prevent boredom.

Besides IQ, students are selected for the program based on their need for such a program and whether they exhibit typical gifted characteristics.

Pamela Sudzina, Polk's gifted program facilitator, said gifted programs take many shapes in the county, depending on the school and the principal's preference.

At some schools, she said, students may be pulled out of their regular class to work with a gifted teacher.

She said students at some schools may attend subject classes, such as math or science, actually taught and graded by a gifted teacher.

At other schools, she said, gifted teachers may co-teach with regular teachers to help cater to a gifted student's particular needs.

Sudzina said most students participate in gifted programs in the early grades.

Gifted teachers are available to high school students mostly on a consultative basis, directing bright students to Advanced Placement courses or other accelerated classes.

Pam Stein, senior manager of psychological services for Polk schools, said the state's proposed rule has left her and her counterparts in other counties with many questions.

First, she said, is how to evaluate all students.

She said a full IQ test takes about an hour and a half and must be conducted by a licensed school psychologist. Even cursory, informal IQ surveys take about 20 to 25 minutes.

"We can't possibly survey every 90,000 to 92,000 students, with a 20- to 25-minute test," she said.

She said Polk could just survey students who do well on the FCAT, but that will leave many students out.

She said the county could also buy a countywide testing program, but that would be expensive.

Florida schools receive money from the state based on the number and type of students they have.

Sherrie Nickell, associate superintendent of learning for the district, said Polk schools get $3,982 for each typical student, $4,121 for gifted students in kindergarten through third grade and $4,332 for gifted students in high school. She said the district receives no extra money for gifted students in fourth through eighth grade.

But the state has not identified any extra resources for evaluating all students. So Stein wonders where Polk schools will find the people, time and money needed to test every student.

"The (proposed) rule just needs to be revised," she said. "And they need to make sure there's adequate funding."

Polk School Board member Hazel Sellers spent about five years as a gifted facilitator at the district office and about 10 years as a gifted teacher. She said the cost to districts to test all students would be "tremendous," especially since the state hasn't offered any funds to offset such a hit. And she said the proposed rule would mean yet another test for students who already face a slew of them.

"I think it's a lot of needless testing for a great number of children," she said.

Gifted changes

State Education Commissioner John Winn, who was in Lakeland on Tuesday to give an award to a teacher, said Florida's gifted system is special in the country because the state provides funding for all gifted programs.

"The state really makes sure that students who have talent, who have the ability to rise to the top, are provided the opportunity," he said.

Still, Winn said that too often the "gifted" label is misused to discriminate against hard-working, high-achieving students who may not test as well as students with high IQs.

"There is too much focus on bgiftedb as a category," he said. "Being 'gifted' does not guarantee students are hard working or have perseverance."

Winn cited schools like Lincoln Avenue Academy, a Lakeland magnet school that offers a technology- and science-based curriculum. It provides opportunities similar to gifted programs to all its students instead of a select few with high IQ scores.

He thinks changing the statebs definition of gifted could be more inclusive.

"Ibm not carried away with the gifted label,b he said. bIt may work against providing opportunities."

Polkbs gifted program, which is available for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, has more than 3,000 students.

Stein said the district identifies about 3 percent of its total enrollment as gifted right now. She said the proposed definition would mean about 7 percent to 10 percent would be identified as gifted.

But that doesn't mean the new definition would be more inclusive for certain demographics, she said. In addition to students who have an IQ of at least 130, the current rule also allows the inclusion of some students with limited English skills or who come from low-income backgrounds but donbt meet the IQ standard.

Stein said the proposed rule does not change provisions for these students.

At the same time, she said, it requires students to do well on the FCAT or its norm-referenced counterpart to be considered gifted. The lower a student's IQ, down to 120, the better the student needs to do on the FCAT to be included. This requirement will limit the number of low income students and non-English speakers who will qualify, Stein said, since those students traditionally do worse on standardized tests. "I think those students would have a much more difficult time qualifying," she said.

The Florida Department of Education has taken public comment on its rule proposal, has heard much of the same criticism and plans to take it under consideration before sending it to the State Board of Education for approval.

The department said it wants consistency in how districts include students in gifted programs and does not want to target specific demographics, such as low-income students and non-English speakers, as it has in the past. "I just hope ... they get answers to a lot of questions before they go forward with this," Sellers said.

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