News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in The Weekly Packet, March 20, 2014
Union 93 completes “painful, painstaking” selection for gifted and talented program

by Anne Berleant

In 2011, a new law, 311 MRSA §8101, re-established special education laws requiring schools to implement a gifted and talented program, and Union 93 schools are, out of necessity, falling in line.

“The onset of this program was not due to need…It’s literally a reaction to a mandate,” said Union 93 curriculum coordinator Rachael Kohrman Ramos. “We put it off as long as possible.”

The Maine Department of Education defines gifted and talented students as those “who excel or have the potential to excel beyond their age peers” in general intellectual ability, specific academic aptitude or artistic ability. It has dictated that approximately 5 percent of students be identified through testing and referrals.

Kohrman Ramos described the selection process for intellectually or academically gifted students. First, students were given an AIMSweb Universal Screening, which tests students in math facts, math aptitude, reading fluency and reading comprehension. (This screening is also used to determine whether a student needs extra help in those subjects.) For those students who score above 95 percent in any one subject, Kohrman Ramos requested a teacher referral that rated the student’s learning and abstract thinking abilities.

Many teachers were reluctant to write the referrals, she said, because in Union 93, where class size is small, “instruction is being differentiated already.”

Kohrman Ramos went through the referrals “with a fine tooth comb,” she said, before choosing students for the final test.

“I’m extremely aware of the subjective nature of [identifying a student] as gifted and talented,” she said.

The final group of students took the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT), a test of visual and spatial reasoning ability, one of three sanctioned by the Maine DOE for gifted and talented testing. Kohrman said she chose the NNAT over one that tested straight reading and math ability.

That, she said, is the “caveat. It’s one kind of test.”

She chose the NNAT because it is not stressful for students, is only 20 minutes long, “mediates for low-income” students and costs only $10 per student, as compared to $200 for another choice.

(Kohrman Ramos noted that for 2013-14, schools budgeted for the more expensive test.)

To identify students who are artistically gifted, teacher referrals will be used, with 5 percent of students chosen each for music and visual arts. That process is nearly completed, Kohrman Ramos said.

Parents of students who took the NNAT but did not qualify for the gifted and talented program have been invited to meet with Kohrman Ramos to see the results and to discuss how class instruction can be adapted for their children.

“This has been a painful, painstaking process,” Kohrman Ramos said. “I’m aware that the process we chose did not pick everyone [parents and teachers] felt should be included.”

For the 24 students in the five Union 93 schools of Blue Hill, Brooksville, Castine, Penobscot and Surry whose results placed them in the top 5 percent of their school, Kohrman Ramos will work with their classroom teachers to develop individualized learning plans, provide resources, supplies and materials, evaluate student progress and provide “content area enrichment.”

“This is a pilot year,” she said. “[The process] hasn’t been transparent because it’s been evolving.” The entire program procedures are now on the Union 93 website at schoolunion93.org/studentservices.

Next year, selection will first start with parent and teacher referrals, she said, and then move into testing.

In addition, an upcoming Union 93 in-service will focus on identifying gifted and talented and “differentiating for all kids,” with a Maine DOE gifted and talented consultant, “because the evaluations show how many kids need these services,” Kohrman Ramos said.