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posted: 3/12/2012 6:29 PM

Expert says U-46 gifted programs were discriminatory

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A gifted education expert testified in federal court Monday during the continuation of the racial bias lawsuit against Elgin Area School District U-46 that the policies and procedures the district used in identifying gifted students were among the most discriminatory and underrepresentative of black and Hispanic students that she had worked with in a 20-year career.

Donna Ford, a professor at Vanderbilt University, said Monday that the use of weighted matrices, some intelligence tests, checklists and nominating forms, as well as teacher bias, contributed to the severe underrepresentation of the two populations in advanced placement and gifted programs.

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The district offered gifted programs known as a School Within a School for native English speaking students and another Spanish English Transition School Within a School, for students who gained proficiency in English, in addition to the district's five academies.

"All three ways that gifted students were served were underrepresented severely," Ford said. "Discrimination is clearly at work to me."

Ford, whose research includes causes of underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students in gifted classes, said the district's first step in the screening process was an "effective gatekeeper" in denying minority students from further consideration. The district used standardized test scores as the first selection criteria for the elementary SWAS program. The district used a score in the 92nd percentile as the cutoff.

"It is unusual and unreasonable," Ford said of the score. "The screening should have started with a pool of, say, 80th percentile. That would have opened the door for African-American and Hispanic students."

Furthermore, gifted students were separated in the district's SWAS and Spanish English Transition programs. Ford said the segregated classes denied black and Hispanic students the opportunity to be educated with white classmates.

The district, however, used appropriate instruments to identify gifted students for the Spanish English program, Ford said. Instead of using test scores as the first measure, the district observed and selected former English Language Learner students for further testing that included the nonverbal and culturally neutral Naglieri intelligence test. Ford testified that black, Hispanic and white students earn comparable scores on the Naglieri test. Standardized test scores also were taken into account.

Data provided by plaintiff's attorneys shows in the 2006-2007 school year Hispanic students accounted for about 21 percent of the program. In the same year, 12 percent of students in high school gifted programs were Hispanic and 2 percent were black. Furthermore, the data showed that in 2007-2008, 15 percent of students at Elgin Academy were Hispanic and 7 percent were black.

In 2008-2009, when the district's population was about 44 percent Hispanic, data shows 4 percent of students in gifted elementary programs were Hispanic and about 7 percent were black.

"The magnitude is severe, underrepresentation is incredibly severe," Ford said. "There's almost zero percent representation in a district that is about 40 percent Hispanic. I don't know how it could happen without discrimination."

An acceptable rate would have been 32 percent inclusion, Ford said.

During cross examination, Maree Sneed, attorney for the school district, said parents were ultimately responsible for signing their students up for gifted programs and academies. Parents could choose not to continue in a gifted program from elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school, Sneed said.

Sneed also pointed to a phenomenon known as "acting white" as a reason for underrepresentation of black students. Ford agreed with Snead's assertion that "most high achieving (black) high school students are accused of acting white," which could contribute to underrepresentation in gifted programs.

The trial had been on hiatus since October. It is expected to continue all week.

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