Santa Barbara News Press

Swollen GATE Numbers Causing Some to Take Pause

By now, the term “grade inflation” is familiar to most, but what about GATE inflation?

Officials say it is happening in the Santa Barbara High School District, where 16 percent of the students are considered “gifted and talented” — more than twice the proportion statewide.

Are Santa Barbara-area students more gifted than others? Maybe. But administrators say the numbers are too high and, due to tighter restrictions, likely to decrease.

“It’s going to be a slow change,” said Davis Hayden, Santa Barbara schools’ director of research and technology.

Parents and educators say the swollen numbers in the high school district owe largely to a general aversion to the “average” classes, coined “college prep,” taken by the majority of middle school and high school students. In a community full of lawyers and doctors on one end of the spectrum, and tree trimmers and house cleaners on the other — with perhaps relatively few middle-class people in between — there’s a perception that average really means remedial.

Some say this has led to a clamor for GATE status, mostly among more affluent parents, who in Santa Barbara tend to be white.

Parent Ingrid Biancone said she urged her child to apply for GATE identification three times — with the third attempt finally a success — based on the college-prep experience of her eldest child at Santa Barbara High School.

“Kids were talking on cell phones, conversing with one another, being disrespectful,” she said. “I had to transfer him out of (the class).”

Said her eldest son, Gabe, who is still in another college prep course: “I’m in a class where I’m getting the only ‘A.’ None of the kids in the class really cares. Therefore, my teacher doesn’t care.”

In a district with a near 50-50 split between white and Latino students, just two in 10 GATE students are Latino. Seven in 10 are white, and nearly one in 10 are Asian.

In the seventh-through-12th-grade high school district, an off-the-charts test score isn’t the only pathway to GATE. If a student doesn’t test well enough, but the teacher agrees that his or her work is the product of giftedness, the child can enter the class. Some say that clause has morphed into a loophole for savvy parents.

If a pupil doesn’t pass the test, “their mom can call the counselor and say, ‘I want my kid in GATE,’ ” said Santa Barbara High School teacher P.J. Elder. “The parents who know how to do that are predominantly white and predominantly English-speaking.”

Mr. Hayden, who has been working at the district about six months, said referrals will be watched more closely.

“We’re going to try to keep it more on the up and up,” he said.

When it comes to testing, officials are mulling another change: limiting the number of times a child can take the test, from once a year to once every other.

But the bigger change is already happening — although its effects won’t filter into the high school district for a while.

Two years ago, the elementary district upgraded the “cognitive abilities” test, described by officials as a hybrid between an IQ test and an academic achievement test. Apparently, the new version is more difficult.

In 2003-04, the first year of the new test, the proportion of elementary school aspirants who were successful plummeted from 36 percent to 13 percent in a year, said Barbie Evans, the GATE identification coordinator for the elementary district. The raw number of new GATE recruits decreased from 143 to 48.

The proportion of GATE students in the Santa Barbara elementary district is only 4.5 percent, much smaller than the high school district’s 16 percent. Perhaps that is because parents whose kids don’t score high enough can’t ask the teacher for a referral, as they can in the high school district. (The Santa Barbara elementary district is located wholly within the city limits; the high school district stretches from Montecito to Goleta.)

Meanwhile, at the high school district, administrators said they have no breakdown of who qualified for GATE through testing and who got in through teacher referrals.

Nonetheless, the phenomenon has renewed old questions about the meaning of GATE and sparked debate about who should get in.

Historically, GATE has applied to students considered innately talented, excluding those who are simply motivated or high achieving. The rationale for this approach has been that GATE students, like special-education students, have special educational needs: They absorb information more quickly, or delve more deeply into it, than others.

“Their minds may be wandering,” Mr. Hayden said. “The class is working on something that is so mundane to them, their minds just drift off.”

The first school for gifted children opened in New York City in 1936, but the program didn’t take off until the launching of the Russian satellite Sputnik in 1957.

Amid the paranoia that powered that era’s nuclear arms race, the event touched off widespread criticism that America lacked challenging courses for its best and brightest scientific minds. A wave of research and funding for gifted programs followed.

In California, though, funding has waned, from $56 million in 2002-03 to $47 million this year, said Sandra Frank, the state’s top GATE administrator.

The concept of “gifted” is linked closely to that of IQ. To qualify for GATE, students must achieve a score of 132 on their cognitive abilities test on one of three measures: verbal, mathematical or spatial.

Although the test is technically different than an IQ test, the two scoring systems line up: 130 on an IQ test is considered “genius.”

About 2.5 percent of people who take an IQ test land in this range. Mr. Hayden said that, ideally, about 5 percent of students should be in GATE.

“Students in the 130-and-above range are different in the way they think than the rest of us,” he said.

Parents such as Ms. Biancone are turned off by the premise that GATE should apply only to students considered inherently special. Left behind, she said, are the hard-working high achievers.

“Here they’re scoring at 120 on their IQ tests and they’re being put in classes where students aren’t even at (grade level),” she said.

But Ms. Evans countered that mixing high achievers and gifted students can be detrimental to the rest of the students.

“I feel it’s wrong to drain our high achievers out of our regular classes,” she said. “It’s good for them to stay there, so children who are not high achievers can see what this other child is doing. (Otherwise) they’re not going to be inspired.”

Ms. Elder teaches one period of GATE freshman English, and one period of regular English. She said the contrast between the two is stark.

“The students in my (regular English class) haven’t had challenging expectations — they’re more passive about their education,” she said. “(The GATE) students will whine, but they’ll do the extra work.”

Last week, her GATE class discussed “The Odyssey.”

For a quiz, she told the class to draw a picture illustrating how Odysseus won the heart and hand of Penelope. (He shot an arrow through 12 ax rings.)

In many ways, the class seemed like any other with pubescent adolescents.

Students were distracted by one another and appeared to delight in getting under Ms. Elder’s skin by asking, for instance, far too many questions about the quiz.

“Do we have to get the number of rings correct?” asked one high-energy and mischievous boy, disclosing a key piece of information.

But classmates also showed their capacity to think in depth, pondering, at Ms. Elder’s behest, the nature of the relationship between the Greeks and their gods.

“The mortals fear the gods,” said Amber Harrington. “The mortals are at the mercy of the gods.”

Ms. Elder said many students and parents believe that GATE classes have siphoned off all the smart kids.

“I think there’s some accuracy to it,” she said, but added that there are a couple of kids easily smart enough to qualify for GATE in the regular class, and vice versa.

In Santa Barbara, where the competition between public and private schools is fierce, there may be an unintended incentive for administrators to keep the doors to GATE open wider than usual.

Anthony Spann, whose sixth-grade daughter attends the public Montecito Elementary school, said his decision on whether to send his child to public Santa Barbara Junior High School or private Laguna Blanca rests largely on whether his child qualifies for GATE.

“When she gets to junior high, it’s going to take much more involvement to keep the kind of education she’s had” in Montecito, he said. But he conceded that she doesn’t seem to much care whether or not she’s gifted. “My daughter is more interested in boys.”