Schools turn to universal screening to increase equity in gifted programs
Florida's Orange County Public Schools started screening all second graders in 2012
Like many districts nationwide, the Orlando-based Orange County Public Schools long identified gifted students through a referral process. Parents or teachers who suspected children of being gifted would recommend them for screening, and the district would assign services accordingly.
During the 2012-13 school year, however, the Orange County Public Schools began a shift to universal screening. It started in its high-poverty schools, where students had historically been underrepresented in gifted programs. That first year, the portion of students being identified as gifted grew 7% from the year before. The next year, it grew another 5.6%.
The portion of students being identified as gifted continued to grow as the universal screening process was rolled out to all of the district’s 128 elementary schools, particularly among black and Latino students as well as those from lower-income families.
These groups are routinely underrepresented in gifted programs around the country. Universal screening processes are seen as one important way to combat this phenomenon.
“For us it really boils down to what we call equity,” said Vickie Cartwright, senior executive director for exceptional student education at OCPS. “We really wanted to ensure that we provided our students with an equitable process so that all of them would have an opportunity to be screened.”
The referral process was inherently uneven. Some teachers are better than others at recognizing gifted qualities in their students. Even beyond the ability to recognize giftedness, some parents do not know gifted services exist in public schools and are, therefore, in no position to refer their students for services. Universal screening gets around both issues.
In Orange County, all second graders take a computer-based assessment that gives district officials a rough estimate of their IQ. Students who score in a particular range are then referred for a formal IQ test that determines their eligibility for gifted services. English learners are given nonverbal assessments of their intellectual capacity.
The students currently identified as gifted in Orange County are a more diverse group than they were five years ago, but progress has been incremental.
“We are where it does not match the demographics of the overall district, however that is something that we are working toward,” Cartwright said. “Our universal screening program has definitely moved us in that direction.”
A paper published in 2015 as part of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s working paper series tracked the impact of universal screening in another urban district, which the Sun-Sentinel identified as South Florida’s Broward County public schools.
In the paper, “Can universal screening increase the representation of low-income and minority students in gifted education?,” economists David Card and Laura Giuliano wrote the school system saw a 180% increase in the gifted rate among all disadvantaged students, with a 130% increase among Latinos and an 80% increase among black students.
The shift to universal screening in Broward County revealed that black and Latino students, students who got free or reduced-price lunches, English learners and girls were all systematically under-referred to the gifted program. Yet many students who qualified for gifted services under the universal screening process had IQs significantly higher than the minimum eligibility threshold, which researchers said implies even high-ability students from disadvantaged backgrounds had been overlooked by the original system, which, like in Orange County, was based on referrals.
“A substantial share of the gap appears to be caused by the failure of the traditional parent/teacher referral system to identify high-ability disadvantaged students,” Card and Giuliano concluded.
In Orange County, Cartwright said the universal screening process has resulted in more work for school and district officials. The computer-based screener is fairly simple to administer but providing services to a larger group of gifted students requires more human capital. Administrators now encourage more teachers to earn gifted endorsements through continuing education. Cartwright’s office also offers more extensive in-house professional development for teachers.
The value, however, is clear.
“For us, it truly is ensuring that we are serving all children and that we really are looking at that larger picture of providing the equitable process,” Cartwright said.
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