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Challenging the Edmonds School District’s Challenge Program

Posted by David on April 17, 2015 in Parenting, Twins, Ty |

I admit it: I’m a proud father.

But when you have a son who counted to 100 at the age of 2, studied and understood the US highway system at the age of 4, and explained weather patterns to teachers in 2nd grade, you know you have a pretty special kid on your hands.

Every teacher, coach, and adult who knows Ty say the same thing: “He thinks differently – unlike any other child I’ve ever met.”

Ty was a hit when interviewed by John Cook of GeekWire!

Ty was a hit when interviewed by John Cook of GeekWire!

Recognizing Ty’s gifts early on, Renee and I were tasked with the challenge of keeping him engaged and interested in traditional classroom work and activities. At his Kindergarten teacher’s suggestion, we had him tested for the district’s “Challenge Program.” When we learned he wasn’t accepted in the program at that time due to his test scores, we weren’t too concerned because we thought that it would be good for Ty to attend the local school and build social relationships with other local students. We also realized that he probably just didn’t test well at such a young age.

Unfortunately and precisely because of Ty’s advanced cognitive ability, he struggles to identify with his peers and maintain friendships at school. It’s been heart-breaking hearing him cry and ask why other kids won’t be his friends at his current school over the past 3 years. His teachers have also noted that its sometimes difficult keeping Ty engaged in the classwork as he finishes his work far faster than his classmates and sits isolated the rest of the class time. After discussions with his teacher and school advisors, we decided it was time again to try to get Ty into the Challenge Program for 4th grade.

While Ty has exceptional intellectual abilities, he sometimes struggles in traditional timed, testing environments. This has been an issue throughout his academic career and his teachers have worked with him to overcome his anxiety and provide less stressful environments/situations when possible. However, this option isn’t possible when it comes to testing for the Challenge program.

We were optimistic that his additional experience in testing environments would help him to score high enough in the CogAT 6 test that is required by the Edmonds School District. So we were disappointed when we received a letter from the District at the end of January notifying us that he didn’t qualify for the Challenge Program based on the scores.

The world is full of amazingly gifted and talented people who excel in many areas of cognitive ability – but simply don’t perform well in structured testing environments. Ty is one of these individuals.

As the National Association for Gifted Children points out, “Tests are common assessment tools for identification, but should not serve as the sole source of identification…An identification strategy that includes multiple assessments—both objective and subjective—is the best way to ensure no gifted learner is overlooked.” The Association advises that when it comes to identifying gifted children, “Because no two gifted children are alike is important to collect information on both the child’s performance and potential through a combination of objective (quantifiably measured) and subjective (personally observed) identification instruments in order to identify gifted and talented students.”

When we told Ty’s teacher and others at his school that he wasn’t accepted in the Challenge Program, they were stunned and immediately wrote letters of recommendation as part of the appeal process. We quickly learned that the Edmonds School District wasn’t exactly supportive of parents appealing the decision, per their website:

Appeal Process If your student did not qualify as gifted, you do have an option to appeal the decision. Most families with lower-than-expected CogAT scores do not appeal. If your child is doing well in school and is enjoying and thriving in his/her current experience, you probably should not appeal. If however, you believe your child’s performance is in the very superior range in comparison to peers, you may want to consider making an appeal. In order to support the Appeal process, compelling supportive evidence beyond the CogAT 6 test that was given to your student is needed. To complete the Appeal process, you may submit a few copies of your student’s work (no originals), teacher letters of reference, and current report card that strongly supports the student’s eligibility as a student who is academically gifted. Please choose one additional Cognitive Ability test that will help the MSC review your student’s appeal. The most commonly used additional Cognitive Ability Measure is the WISC IV. A state licensed psychologist must give the test and costs vary according to the test and the psychologist you choose.
• Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC IV)
• Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI)
• Stanford Binet Cognitive Assessment V
• Woodcock Johnson Cognitive Assessment Scales III

We decided to appeal the decision and learned that the cost of private testing was upwards of $500, depending on the professional used for the testing. Now, we already know that Ty doesn’t test well but this in and of itself doesn’t mean he’s not gifted. Because of the high cost of testing coupled with the fact that such private psychologists had waiting lists for such testing, we were not able to provide additional private testing results as part of our appeal.

While I was hopeful that Ty would be accepted into the program after his initial testing, I was highly confident that he would be accepted based on our appeal. We provided compelling evidence of Ty’s exceptional abilities despite structured test scores along with exemplary letters of recommendation from faculty members of his school. Surely the committee would understand that there are exceptional and gifted children who may not test well but should be part of the program – especially if every teacher that student has ever had considers him to be gifted.

So it goes without saying that we were crushed when we received another letter from the District rejecting Ty and our appeal from the gifted program. The primary reason? “The Committee looked at all the appeal and testing information, work samples, and exemplary letters from teachers; but they did not have any additional cognitive tests to compare with the CogAT scores. In Challenge, students are expected to identify and solve complex programs, explore concepts in greater depth and complexity and be able to work at a much higher level than students in the regular program.”

So in other words, the Committee doesn’t care what Ty’s teachers think. Or about his work samples or report cards. The only criteria they are using is test scores. We are saddened that families who cannot afford private testing are not allowed into the challenge program. Paying out of pocket for additional testing for the purpose of appeal puts an advantage on wealthy families and unfairly punishes those who cannot afford such private sessions. In our case, we priced out the private testing opportunities to find they are quite expensive and we ran out of time to find alternative means.

We were very explicit in our appeal letter that Ty just doesn’t test well in timed, structured settings, but that given additional opportunities to prove his abilities, he would outperform expectations.

While the most recent letter said that the Committee’s decision is final, we’re not settling for defeat yet because we know how important this is for Ty’s education and development. We’re currently exploring legal and other options, including discussions with the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Washington State Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds. The process is broken and it needs to be fixed so that Ty and other deserving and neglected students are not unfairly excluded.

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