Cheating parents, MISIS conspire to slow down LAUSD's gifted program
Vanessa Romo, LA School Report, 3/19/15
LA Unified officials are close to clearing a two-year backlog of assessments aimed at identifying thousands of students who would qualify for the highly-prized Gifted and Talented Education program.
Why has it taken so long?
For one reason, says the district, parents of many gifted students proved they, too, are gifted — at cheating. For another, the new student tracking system known as MISIS showed yet again how it could bollix up a program to the detriment of students, teachers and schools.
By next month the GATE staff of 19 is expected to complete its review of 5,622 students who had been identified as possible candidates for the program in 2013-2014, in addition to any new referrals from the current school year. Overall, about 70,000 students are enrolled in the program.
"We're almost all caught up," said Megan Reilly, Chief Financial Officer, fully relieved now that Superintendent Ramon Cortines has allocated $35,000 for Saturday assessments to help alleviate the bottleneck.
The logjam began in the 2012-2013 school year after Wynne Wong-Cheng, a district GATE specialist, said her department noticed irregular patterns in the results of the district's most widely-used and efficient test for gifted students called the "Raven's Progressive Matrices," which measures intelligence by assessing how a child learns.
She found that the district had many gifted students. Maybe too many.
"When you start seeing an entire classroom above the 99th percentile, or when you're looking at statistics, and it's not being aligned with what we're supposed to be finding, then we have to look deeper," she told LA School Report.
That deeper look was not good.
"The group assessment we were using over the past 14 years was being compromised," she said, choosing her words carefully, before adding, "What we were finding was that a lot of the kids were pre-exposed to the assessments."
Pre-exposed, as in searching for the test online, as in cheating.
"Not by the schools," she was quick to clarify, but by internet-savvy parents, hoping their children tested well enough for their school's more rigorous GATE instruction or viewing it as a ticket into some of the district's most elite academic magnet schools.
"We've had a lot kids that would just admit that they were on the web taking the actual test the night before with their parents," Wong-Cheng said.
Apparently, it doesn't require much skill to find the Raven test online. "All you have to do is Google the name, and it comes up," she said.
When the district became aware of the problem, the GATE department began reviewing earlier Raven testing records, sometimes reassessing an entire school, sometimes re-testing individual students. "That was one of the biggest reasons this problem started," Wong-Cheng said.
GATE officials also decided to discontinue the Raven, phasing it out over the last three years, exacerbating the unprecedented setback. This is the first year the district did not use the old test at all, instead, piloting a new, unnamed, group assessment.
However, in the absence of the group test, the GATE staff was limited to screening students one-on-one, an extremely labor intensive process, according to Wong-Cheng. While the Raven takes 45 minutes to administer to 25 to 30 children at one time, individual assessments by a GATE psychologist can take up to two hours, and the district only employs eight full-time psychologists.
LA Unified officials also contacted Pearson Publishing, the maker of the test, to get the company to pursue legal action against online posters. But, it proved to be prohibitively expensive and ultimately, as anyone with an unflattering picture on the internet can attest, impossible to eradicate from the web.
The Raven test is considered by many field experts to be the gold-standard for IQ assessments and is still widely used by school districts throughout California, including San Diego Unified, the second largest district in the state. Developed in 1935 by John Raven, it is a non-verbal test designed to measure a student's intelligence and cognitive processing rather than achievement levels, ability to memorize facts or the possession of a broad vocabulary.
Despite its widespread use, it is just one of a handful of assessments administered by LA Unified, which has seven categories of gifted and talented identification: Intellectual, tested with an IQ assessment administered by a psychologist, including the Raven; High Achievement, also IQ based; Specific Academic Ability, based on academic records including standardized test scores and class grades over two to three years; Leadership Ability, usually based on teacher referrals; Creative and Visual Arts, requiring a portfolio of work; and Performing Arts, which usually involves an audition.
Another factor contributing to the backlog was the introduction of MISIS. In recent years, the GATE office has generated lists of eligible gifted and talented candidates by data mining, using a computer program to cull through online grade records and standardized test scores. The system was set up as a result of an investigation by the Office of Civil Rights, which concluded that fewer Latino and African American students were recommended for screening than their white peers. The district automated the process to eliminate human bias.
But for most of the year teachers have been unable to use MISIS to record student grades. And it wasn't until the beginning of this month that the automated program was fixed. A MISIS update dated March 4 announced, "GATE Identification has been corrected and is reflecting accurately."
Erin Yoshida-Ehrmann, a GATE district specialist, said the grade vacuum coupled with the absence of standardized test scores as the state transitions to the Common Core, created an over-zealousness in teachers, who "upped student referrals" for the "Intellectual" and "High Achievement" categories, when they realized the automated system was down.
"Since the discontinuation of the [standardized tests] we came up with a contingency plan where our students would use their grades, in addition to their previous California State Test scores," Yoshida-Ehrmann explained. "But with MISIS" and the uncertainty of no test scores, "I think a lot of the schools decided to up their referrals for the Intellectual because they were afraid that it was going to impact their identification percentage."
Schools that under-identify eligible GATE candidates are monitored by the district.
"Teachers were afraid of having kids fall through the cracks," she said.
Overall enrollment in the GATE program has grown steadily in recent years, even as district enrollment has experienced a sharp decline.