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Possible over-identification of students as gifted became the central debate of a recent School Board meeting on Advanced Academic Programs.

Last week, School Board members met with George Mason University analysts to discuss a new 300-page report by Mason evaluating Fairfax County Public Schools’ AAP offerings. Mason was tasked with unearthing answers to a number of questions of concern to board members, including those involving an enrollment boom in AAP. During the last several years, enrollment in Level IV AAP Centers, the highest level of advanced academics offered to third- through eighth-graders, has more than doubled.

“We used to identify about 6 percent for Level IV. We’re now hovering closer to about 18 percent of Level IV,” said School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock District) during a work session last Thursday. “Why did we see that change happen in Fairfax County? We all know it’s not because a huge influx of talented kids moved in. In fact what we’re seeing is a change in our population with kids having ESOL (language) challenges. So we need to have a more accurate picture about the change in our population and how that relates to the change in our identification at Level IV.”

Mason analysts offered some insight.

“There isn’t anything wrong with the AAP identification model. The model itself is sound,” said Beverly Shaklee, director of Mason’s Center for International Education. “We believe it is being influenced by outside stressers to the system… There is a cottage industry out in the region of test preparation and of preparing students prior to taking the test for identification and screening. People can go shopping for a test. And they can go shopping for the person who is going to help their child get the test score they want.”

Shaklee said the current set-up favors students from wealthier families and often results in some children tackling advanced course loads they aren’t equipped to handle.

“Parents place a very high level [of importance] on participation in AAP programs. To an extent that is positive,” Shaklee added. “It’s a positive recognition of the quality of the program and caliber of what is going on; but sometimes they may take it a little bit further than they need to in terms of their child being in a particular program.”

GMU’s analysis included collected surveys from 1,752 students, 708 parents, 79 teachers and 27 administrators. Additionally, Mason held focus group discussions with teachers, parents and students and conducted 20 AAP classroom observations.

Shaklee said FCPS might be able to stem over-identification by changing its AAP identification test.

“You could consider using one source for external testing,” she said. “Instead of the shopping mall approach where people can go and find a variety of providers, you could make a decision that there is one external provider that is an approved external person.That would limit some of what’s happening with the shopping for tests.”

A customized test specific to Fairfax County might offer the school system more control in ensuring truly gifted students are gaining admittance into AAP classrooms.

A customized test might also address School Board members concerns over access to gifted programs.

“I still think we have a problem with access, equal access,” School Board member Patricia Hynes (Hunter Mill District) said. “And I think it has to do with the fact that we know the significant role that parent referrals play and I think this [raises the question] of whether we’re identifying too many. Your report says that equal access is available, but I wonder, in practice, is that true?”

FCPS conducts screenings of all students in second and third grades to see if they are eligible for AAP offerings. After those screenings, parents and sometimes teachers may refer students for AAP services.

“The comment that we hear consistently is that the national average of gifted kids is 5 or 6 percent, or somewhere around that, and we’re at 16 percent or so,” School Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon District) said. “Are our kids, as Garrison Keillor would say, that much above average?... Is this truly something unique going on here?”

GMU analysts said Fairfax County’s parents are highly educated, which could be linked to a larger student talent pool. Similarly, income could be a driver. Fairfax County’s median income is $105,000, the second highest in the nation behind Loudoun County.

The School Board will take up AAP enrollment and expansion questions again during a work session later this month.