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Identifying advanced learners in Baltimore

In 2014, 735 Baltimore City Public School students in grades 2-8 took an above-grade-level test to learn if they were qualified for our academic programs at the non-profit Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY), where I’m the director of research. The students, who were identified as good candidates for CTY through teacher recommendations and previous standardized test performance, hoped testing would lead to challenging, fun academics outside of school that could help pave their way to college. And we were excited to welcome hundreds of Baltimore kids to our summer and online programs, which draw thousands of students from around the world annually.

But when their test scores came in, there was little to celebrate. Typically, when kids with similar qualifications test with CTY, about 75 percent qualify. Of the 735 Baltimore City students who tested, only 15.5 percent qualified. For the majority of testers — nearly 85 percent — the door to CTY remained closed.

We knew there were CTY-level academically advanced students in Baltimore City schools, but our identification methods missed them. We suspected the tool we were using for identification, the above-grade-level test, might be the problem. It’s widely understood that aptitude and achievement tests used for college admissions, including the tests used by CTY, have a severe socioeconomic and cultural bias. But CTY couldn’t go test-optional, like more than 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities have done, to level the playing field. Above-grade-level testing is at the core of who we are, the tool we have used for 40-plus years to identify academic potential in bright elementary and middle school students. For most of our students, it’s an effective tool.

It’s also known that students from low-income and marginal populations are underrepresented in programs for advanced learners. But we didn’t want to lower the qualifying standards for city school students on our above-grade-level tests, either, because that wouldn’t solve the problem or confirm what we believed to be true: City school students are just as bright as other students who qualify for our programs.

We decided to try a new method of identifying CTY-eligible students in Baltimore City. In 2014, with Baltimore City Public Schools, CTY launched a free, 25-week, before- and after-school interdisciplinary academic enrichment program for elementary students in two Baltimore schools. Schools selected kids to participate in the program and there was no qualifying test. CTY provided the curriculum and training for city school teachers.

The program, CTY Baltimore Emerging Scholars, and the second, third, and fourth graders in it, flourished. It now reaches more than 500 students in 16 city schools. When we compare their cognitive skills to students in CTY Summer Programs, 65 to 70 percent of CTY Baltimore Emerging Scholars demonstrate the same abilities as those who qualified by testing. This much higher rate is more comparable to our standard 75 percent qualifying rate than what we saw in the 2014 test. Moreover, when 19 CTY Baltimore Emerging Scholars participated in our challenging academic summer programs, their classroom performance was on par with their CTY-qualified classmates.

Research shows that the earlier you can provide enrichment to young learners, the more likely you are able to have a meaningful impact. That’s why in June, when we welcome nearly 10,000 students to our summer programs — including former CTY Baltimore Emerging Scholars — we’ll also be opening the door to 180 Baltimore City students in grades 1-3 for a new CTY Baltimore Emerging Scholars Summer Program.

Funded by a $400,000 LEAP grant to Baltimore City Public Schools from the Maryland State Department of Education, the free out-of-school learning program will provide CTY-designed and administered small, interdisciplinary courses in writing, science and math to high-potential students.

We hope that as our data continue to show that these students — identified as academically advanced without the use of CTY’s above-grade-level tests — can perform as successfully as their peers from wealthier communities, we can use these strategies to support students in schools with traditionally low identification rates across the U.S.

Advanced learners exist in all communities, but we have little hope of closing the often-cited “excellence gap” if we’re unable to identify these students and provide them with the support they need to realize their full potential.

Amy Lynne Shelton is the interim executive director and director of research at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. Her email is cty-execdirector@jhu.edu.

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