Boxed In

Seventh grade science teacher Pauline LaFleur has spent a lot of time refining rubrics with her colleagues. Nonetheless, they don't quite provide the support she needs to evaluate the work of two exceptionally creative students who also happen to be contenders for the gifted education program at her school. The ways we measure intellect, creativity, and academic prowess are subject to interpretation in this case focusing on assessment and individuality.

Seventh grade science teacher Pauline LaFleur collects students’ science logs as class begins.

Becky rarely missed an opportunity to show her creative side.

She didn’t notice when I called her name. Didn’t budge as I approached her desk and stood right next to her. Instead, she remained hunched over her sketches, eyes focused, blonde hair draped over her forearm and spilling onto her desk.

“Becky,” I tried again, “I don’t have your science log book.”

“I know. I’m almost finished.”

She didn’t look up, didn’t pause, just kept on drawing, switching pencils for markers and blues for greens, oblivious to the rest of us.

I sighed, anxious to get a look at her work, and anxious to get on with my lesson. “OK, but please get it to me today. Tomorrow I have to start deducting points from your grade.”

As I worked my way toward the front of the room, I caught a glimpse inside Allyson’s backpack. “Sheesh,” I wondered, “how does she manage to find a thing?” I could make no sense out of the contents of her bag, could discern only crumpled papers, bent folders, and what looked like a piece or two of yesterday’s lunch.

Allyson was a complex student and a critical thinker.

“Got it!” she shouted, jumping up and slamming her chair into the desk behind hers. Impulsivity was one of Allyson’s standout qualities, but she was equally as thoughtful. “Shoot, I’m sorry. Here, I’ll get it.” Allyson bent over to pick up the pen and papers she had knocked onto the floor under Joseph’s desk. As she did so, she nearly bumped her head. I had to bite my tongue to keep from smirking. This was beginning to look like a Stooges routine.

Having repaired any damage to her relationship with Joseph, Allyson rushed toward me and thrust her science log book into my hands. “Here…here it is. We finished fixing it up last night. I hope it’s ok.”

I took a quick look at the glossy folder in my hands, raised an eyebrow, and made a mental note of the “we” Allyson had just mentioned.

“Great. This looks, well, very professional, Allyson.”

She was beaming. “Thanks. Using the computer helped a lot. My Mom set me up.” Allyson’s eyes took on that serious look I’d grown to admire —and dread. It usually meant that a lengthy discussion was brewing.

Allyson was an enigma. One moment she’d seem completely dysfunctional, and in the next her inquisitiveness and insight could be startling.

Pauline reflects on assessment challenges and speculates about an overly helpful parent.

After my students left for the day, I stacked their science log books on my crowded desk and left to make copies of the scoring rubric I’d use later to assess them.

It had taken our department a while to develop this tool. I liked its versatility, and although it attempted to be quite specific in its scoring criteria, I still often found myself wavering between twos and threes, or threes and fours. Nothing, it seemed, fit neatly into a box.

As I added the rubric copies to the log book stack, I stole a look at my plan book. In 45 minutes I’d be sitting in the Bookerton Middle School gifted eligibility meeting. Both Becky and Allyson were on the day’s agenda, so I decided to score their log books first.

See the science experiment scoring rubric below:

See sample pages from Allyson’s science log book below:

See sample pages from Becky’s science log book below:

BeckyÂ’s Plant Log Book showcased her creativity.

Both students would appear before the committee as appeals. Allyson had been removed from the gifted program due to her falling grades, and her parents had appealed that decision. Becky’s initial nomination was denied for similar reasons, and I was appealing this.

I shuffled through the log books and found Allyson’s log first. It presented me with a peculiar challenge. The quality of the work was exceptional. There was no doubt about that. But, what was noteworthy was how exceptional it was coming from Allyson.

Her assignments were typically as rumpled as last night’s pajamas, full of sloppy handwriting and omissions. But lately her assignments, well, frankly, they looked like her parents had done them.

Allyson Calahan’s mother was one of the few parents who maintained her dutiful volunteer status even after her children entered middle school. She was as reliable as clockwork, detail oriented, and willing to do whatever I needed at a moment’s notice.

Thinking about how punctual she was brought my mind back to our interaction earlier this week. My planning period was about to end, and I was zipping around making final preparations for my next class. I turned the corner to my room, and my jaw dropped. There stood Mrs. Calahan, at my desk, leafing through my papers. My mind raced, picturing what was on my desk: my open grade book, lesson plans, our rubric, gifted identification information, student work…

I took a breath, cleared my throat, and watched as she jumped away from my desk.

“Hello.” What else could I say? I was suffering a rare moment of speechlessness.

Pauline prepares for the gifted eligibility meeting.

I had no clear answers when it came to Becky and Allyson’s log books, so I changed my approach. I moved on to the rest of the pile. The log book on top of the heap belonged to Joseph, the student who Allison had bumped earlier that day. Joseph was a solid student, just playful enough, who knew where to draw the line and get down to business. His log book was easy to read, full of tidy charts documenting what he’d done, and showed an understanding of the scientific process. Joseph’s skills fit as neatly into our rubrics’ boxes as he fit into the ideal student mold. “What will happen to Becky and Allyson if we keep pushing them into these boxes of ours?” I wondered.

It was time to go, and I hadn’t accomplished much. I tidied up my desk, placed my grade book inside the top drawer, collected my gifted meeting materials, and headed down the hall.

Usually I arrive at meetings like this mentally prepared with a focused plan of what I’ll say. But today was different. Even as I walked toward the library, I wasn’t sure how I’d present an update on these two students, and I felt unsure about my assessments of their classroom performance.

I knew the district’s definition of giftedness included ability, creative thinking, and academic achievement. I knew our school was getting a lot of flak about the “watering down” of the gifted criteria to accommodate pressure from parents who want their kids in these programs. And I was guessing that, as a result, my principal would not be looking kindly on any appeals.

See the Bookerton school district’s definition of giftedness below:

I tried to shift my focus to the students in question as I checked my mailbox. Becky and Allyson had both scored well on earlier, but that’s where their similarities ended.

See ability tests below:

See Becky’s assessment profile below:

See Allyson’s assessment profile below:

Becky got so wrapped up in her imagination that the nuts and bolts of middle school reality often escaped her. She had difficulty keeping up with her assignments and often strayed far from the task at hand. Once I had my students work on collaborative projects as part of our science review. Somehow, Becky’s group came up with a skit that included a radio. The relationship between the skit and the science concept was murky. Nonetheless, in my opinion, Becky was a creative genius.

Allyson’s grades had been slipping steadily until she was removed from the gifted program. Then, suddenly, she’d begun pulling off outstanding work, much of it completed at home. I had been wondering about Allyson and possible ADHD since the first day we’d met. She’d come into the room with a flourish, accidentally bumping chairs and spilling most of her new school supplies onto the slick terrazzo floor. Once she’d finally gotten seated, she zipped and unzipped, snapped and unsnapped every moving part of her backpack and binder—and there were many. Why was it that parents of easily distracted students insist on providing them with school supplies that look capable of morphing into small appliances? Yet, despite Allyson’s distractibility, I had a lot of respect for her. She was perceptive, critical, and curious. I felt sure of many things when it came to Allyson, but I wondered about what was fueling the dramatic turn-around in her academic performance.

I’d thought a great deal about both of these students. Even so, I still couldn’t say whether or not they belonged in the gifted program. I was beginning to feel boxed in by this eligibility process. In many ways a student like Joseph seemed a better fit for gifted services—his former teacher sure seemed to think so. He was self-motivated, detail oriented, articulate, and a strong leader. But his work left me uninspired. As I walked through the door into the library, I wondered, “How much should my level of inspiration matter here?”

See a list of characteristics of giftedness below: