Equal Talents, Unequal Opportunities – An Ohio Perspective
The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation recently released a report entitled, “Equal Talents, Unequal Opportunities: A Report Card on State Support for Academically Talented Low-Income Students.” One of the reasons this report is ground-breaking is that the authors assign grades to each state on two sets of indicators: Inputs and Student Outcomes. Gifted advocates in Ohio should be quite familiar with these terms. There was deep debate about whether inputs or outputs should be used a basis for the gifted performance indicator. The answer in Ohio (and now it appears on the national level) is that both inputs and outputs are necessary to look at the overall health of state support of high-ability students.
The report recommendations are few, simple, and profound:
1. Make high-performing students highly visible – In other words, make sure the support and performance of these students are transparent to the public.
2. Remove barriers that prevent high-ability students from moving through coursework at a pace that matches their achievement level.
3. Ensure that all high-ability students have access to advanced educational services.
4. Hold LEAs (districts) accountable for the performance of high-ability students from all economic backgrounds.
Each of the two grades in the report is based on nine indicators culled from a list of over forty (Figure 2 of the report). Most of the indicators are based on general policies that would (naturally) support gifted students. The full list of indicators is worth reviewing as many that I personally think are the most important (including all indicators relating to actual opportunities for student participation in advanced learning) were somewhat conspicuously not incorporated into the grading system. This is apparently due to both to the lack and validity of data related to advanced learners in many, if not most, states in the country. Unfortunately, one of the most important indicators (incentives or penalties tied to advanced performance), was not included in the list of indicators chosen for the state input grade. But enough quibbling about indicators. Let’s get to the real question: How did Ohio perform in this first-ever report of state support for academically talented low-income students?
Input Grade – Ohio B– On the input grade, Ohio does relatively well. Ohio received an overall GPA of 2.89 or B- on this set of indicators. (Each indicator is graded up to 4 points. The total number of points is then averaged into a GPA.) Here is how Ohio scored on each of the indicators:
* It is unclear to me what the authors of the report were looking for in terms of monitoring or auditing districts. Ohio does actual track data on districts, requires a self-report, (somewhat) audits districts, and reports a good deal of this information on the gifted dashboard. Perhaps as the dashboard came into existence after this report was released, it was not included.
** While the report praises Ohio for the gifted performance indicator, the authors criticize the indicator as not having a factor to explore the excellence gap between low and non-low income students. The 2014 Ohio gifted performance indicator actually does look at both at the identification and services of low and non-low income students as well as minority and non-minority populations. The report is using Ohio’s pre-2014 indicator which has fewer components. Ohio still does not report performance of gifted low-income vs. non low-income students, which is possibly something for future consideration.
*** Ohio and most, if not all, other states do participate in international exams. What the authors of the report don’t explicitly explain is that some selected states are used as benchmark states in some of PISA and TIMSS. In order to be a benchmark state, the state has to be chosen by the USDOE Center for Educational Statistics. Ohio is not one of these chosen states. Also, a few states pay extra to be counted and reported separately in PISA or TIMSS. Given that benchmarking participation is not necessarily in the control of each state, I’m unclear why this indicator was selected as one of the nine.
**** Ohio Revised Code actually does require teachers to have rudimentary knowledge of gifted students in all pre-service programs. (Administrators were required to as well until 2009 when the language was taken out of ORC). Unfortunately, the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Board of Regents never enforced this part of the law. Consequently, very few teacher preparation programs include gifted education standards.
Discussion of Ohio’s Input Grade: Given that Ohio is one of a minority of states that does not mandate gifted services, it is almost a shock to see that the state is one of six states receiving the highest grade of B-. One could argue that some indicators should be more heavily weighted than others. (Personally, I would have heavily weighted gifted services, eliminated the high school honors diploma and added state incentives and penalties as an indicator.) However, given the list of indicators chosen, one thought immediately comes to mind: Almost every indicator that Ohio has met was due to the advocacy efforts of Ohio’s gifted community. While we often bemoan the lack of opportunities Ohio’s gifted children have, we should occasionally step back and look at the long list of things we have been able to accomplish over the years:
The Ohio Association for Gifted Children (OAGC) has been the major organization advocating for the gifted identification law, early entrance to kindergarten, dual middle/high school grades, the state acceleration policy, gifted pre-service for all educators, gifted value-added, the gifted dashboard, and finally the gifted performance indicator. Ohio fares well on the input grade because gifted advocates have pushed hard for transparency and some measure of accountability for gifted students in this state. We should all be proud of these efforts. It should also be validating that some of our work is used as an example for other states (e.g. the gifted performance indicator).
And once we’ve patted ourselves on the back, let’s take deep breath and view the not so positive news: the output grade.
Output Grade – Ohio C On the overall output grade, Ohio received a 2.11 GPA or a grade of C. The output measures were largely a combination of advanced level scores on the NAEP 4th and 8th grade NAEP reading and math exams as well as the relative performance of low-income to non low-income students scoring advanced on these exams. Ohio scored relatively well on the advanced levels of exams on NAEP (and I do use the term relatively very specifically as all states clearly have some work to do here). However, when it comes to the performance of low-income students scoring on these exams as a percentage of non low-income students, Ohio’s GPA is a whopping 1.0, which is a D on the report’s GPA scale. In fact, while the report showers Ohio with accolades for our work on the gifted performance indicator, it takes aim at our performance gap between low and non low-income high-performing students. Here are the individual indicator scores for Ohio on the output grade:
**Points for each of the last four indicators were based on the relative performance of low-income students to not low income students scoring at advanced levels. A maximum of four points was awarded for each indicator.
Discussion of Ohio’s Output Grade: To be honest, Ohio’s poor performance on the “excellence gap” measures is not at all surprising. As outlined in OAGC’s “2015 State of Gifted Education in Ohio” report,
“Students classified as economically disadvantaged are less than half as likely as other students to be identified as gifted in the state of Ohio and are only 81 percent as likely to receive gifted services. These are alarming figures. While urban districts tend to do a better job of identifying economically disadvantaged students as gifted, the large urban districts fail to provide a commensurate level of services to these students. Suburban districts do a very poor job of identifying and serving gifted economically disadvantaged students.”
In fact, it is apparent from the 2015 State of Gifted Education in Ohio report that students in poorer districts overall are less likely to be identified as gifted, less likely to be provided with gifted services, less likely to have appropriately licensed gifted staff, less likely to have state funds allocated for gifted education actually spent on gifted services, and less likely to meet the gifted performance indicator.
The Bottom Line – Largely due to the pressure from gifted advocates with the support of a few incredibly supportive policymakers along the way, Ohio does well in removing barriers from learning and showing the public how gifted students are supported (or not) in Ohio. But aside from a few more important changes to funding accountability and service and staffing transparency, these efforts will soon reach a limit. Policy makers now need to take the lead to make the change that will lead to real progress by requiring gifted students to be served in all districts. Until this is accomplished, high-ability low-income students, particularly those in lower wealth districts, will never come close to receiving the same opportunities as those students whose parents can either provide the opportunities privately or can move to districts that choose to provide those services. It is quite simply an issue of educational equity.
The evidence is in; the grades are out: By allowing districts to decide whether or not they serve gifted students in Ohio, low-income gifted students will never receive the educational opportunities they so desperately need. As the “Equal Talents, Unequal Opportunities” report so succinctly states,
“Our most vulnerable high-ability students are paying a steep price for this policy silence.”