Melting Pot: Teaching LEP Gifted Students

Culturally diverse gifted learners are often underrepresented in gifted education programming. Platte Grainger is a young student being considered for gifted education services. His limited English proficiency may be interfering with his testing success, posing new challenges for the educators serving him.

First grader Platte Granger reports the weather to his eager classmates.

Platte takes off his coat and hangs it on his hook in the back of the room. He stuffs his gloves, scarf, and hat into the small cubbies beside the coat hooks. He tries to cram his backpack in as well, but it won’t fit, so he carries it with him to his desk.

Platte fills his cubby

His teacher, Annette Jameson, greets him, “Well, good morning, Platte. Cold out there, isn’t it?”

Platte nods his head eagerly, “I could see my brathe.”

“You could see your breath?” Annette repeats.

“Yes, my breath. It is very cold.” Platte smiles up at his teacher and pulls his math practice sheet out of his backpack. Annette can see he created—and solved—extra problems on the back, something he started doing a few weeks ago. “Will we do something new today in math?”

“Soon,” Annette smiles back. Platte’s so eager to move faster in mathematics, but many of her other students aren’t ready to move forward. Annette tries to differentiate her lessons—she wants to challenge Platte—but sometimes she just doesn’t have time. The gifted resource teacher could help—if he were in the program. Platte’s been tested, but until the eligibility committee meets, Annette is responsible for helping Platte.

As she moves toward the front of the room, Annette recalls Platte’s first day and the difficulty some students had understanding him. His classmates adjusted almost as quickly to Platte’s accent as he worked to correct it. Now it went nearly unnoticed by his classmates, but Annette could see that Platte still struggled to understand—and be understood.

As other students arrive, they join Annette on the carpet for circle time. She uses the calendar to work in math skills and cultural information. Students love this time and enjoy calculating days till the next holiday or adding special events to the day’s agenda. This morning, because of their earlier discussion, Annette asks Platte if he’d like the honor of being the class meteorologist for the day. Platte nods excitedly and jumps up. He walks proudly over to the window and looks out at the large thermometer.

“It is forty-three out,” he reports. “That’s only 11 degrees more than freezing temperature!”

“Excellent, Platte. Any other observations?”

“It is cloudy, but there is no snow. And, when I was waiting for my bus, I could see my breath.” Platte smiles at his teacher and moves back to his spot in the circle.

The Pineview Elementary School gifted eligibility committee meets. Platte’s case poses challenges for the group.

Pineview Elementary School’s gifted eligibility committee is conducting its quarterly meeting. Seated in chairs too small for their adult bodies, the group studies the student profiles on the table before them.

See a description of Pineview Elementary School below:

The gifted education teacher, Susan Walker, chairs the eligibility committee meeting. “The next student for consideration is a six-year-old named Platte Granger.

See Platte’s assessment profile below: 

Teachers ruffle through the folders and Susan continues. “Remember that we generally look for a composite score of around the 95th percentile for achievement and a Full Scale IQ score of about 130, or the 95th percentile, for general intellectual ability. We typically identify specific academic ability with achievement subtest scores at about the 95th percentile and a Full Scale IQ score of at least 120. Is there other information that anyone would like to add to the standardized test data?”

Annette speaks, ” Platte is sometimes slow to answer a question or suggest an idea, but I think that’s because of his language barrier. When he does answer, his insight and level of understanding seem beyond his years. His work in math class is exemplary. He may need more time in reading and writing, but even there his work is creative and thoughtful. His reading and writing just seem a little rough around the edges.”

Helen Mitor, the gifted education coordinator turns to Annette. “You mentioned a language barrier, and I notice on the assessment profile that Platte’s native language is Spanish. Can you tell us more about his language proficiency?”

Debbie Tanner, the school counselor, jumps into the conversation, sharing insight into Platte’s family background and home environment. ” Platte lives with his two grandparents, two parents, and his older brother. The family moved to this country just two years ago. Spanish is spoken at home, except for the occasional English between Platte and his brother. Because our ESL (English as a Second Language) services were limited when the family first moved here, Platte was placed in a regular classroom. Platte picked up English from other students during kindergarten. Both of his parents dropped out of high school, but they are committed to providing a good education for their children; that’s why they moved here. Platte’s father is a shift worker at the new meat packing plant outside of town, and his mother is a homemaker. They live in a three-bedroom apartment.”

Members of the eligibility committee have mixed reactions to Platte’s profile and eligibility.

The eligibility committee continues to discuss Platte’s assessment profile. The eligibility committee meeting turns into a discussion about bilingual gifted learners.

Transcript of Eligibility Committee Discussion of Platte’s Assessment Profile:

Jim Harper, Building Administrator: I’m not sure there’s much need for discussion here. As you can see, this child does not appear to be any more gifted than I am.

Annette: I know that Platte’s profile scores don’t add up to what you usually see, but Platte’s a really bright child. It’s just the tests were in English, right?

Helen Mitor, Gifted Coordinator: That’s the language our assessments are in.

Susan: I’ve been reading up on bilingual gifted children. They’re frequently under-identified because of testing bias. I’m wondering if Alice can tell us more about how to interpret these scores, given Platte’s bilingualism.

Dr. Alice Angleton, School Psychologist: Yes, I think I can. First, the verbal scores seem to be much lower than the performance or nonverbal scores. Further, his strengths in the nonverbal areas of intellect are evidenced by the intelligence and achievement scores. Finally, the composite score indicates an overall above-average intellect. As a practice, the composite score is the best indicator of general intellectual ability.

Helen: I understand the WISC-III is one of the best individualized intelligence tests. In fact, the verbal and performance subtests have better technical adequacy than most group intelligence tests. Wouldn’t the performance score alone tell us a lot about this child’s intellectual capacity? And Platte’s is within our normal range for eligibility. The difference in verbal and performance scores is very likely due to his limited English proficiency. In fact, didn’t he perform quite well, considering he’s been speaking English for only two years?

Alice: Most psychologists argue against looking at the subtest scores on any standardized test. They believe that the composite score is a better indicator of overall intelligence.

Susan: I think it’s important to note that Platte’s achievement test data are consistent with the intelligence data.

Jim: I don’t think we want to make exceptions in the use of intelligence test scores. Besides, how would this child perform alongside typical gifted learners in our program? It wouldn’t be fair to this child and it certainly isn’t fair to the other children who met the standards in the first place.

The discussion gets so tangled that the group adjourns and Platte’s case is tabled until they can schedule another session.

Annette and Dabney look at adapting assessments to help support Platte.

Annette flops down in the chair next to Dabney’s desk. “What do you think is fair?” she asks, as if they’d been in the middle of a conversation.

Dabney looks up over her glasses. “About what?”

“Is it fair for Platte to be excluded from the gifted program because his language skills are lagging, or is it fair to put him in that highly competitive setting?”

“C’mon, Platte should be getting those services, and you know it. Now let’s look at what you’re doing next in math so I can help prepare.”

“OK, we’re starting subtraction. I’ve got this pretest I’d like to use, but there’s so much reading on it. What do you think?”

See First page of the math pretest below: 

The county subtraction assessment is indeed a field of grey. Dabney tries to imagine that she’s Platte looking at all of those words floating on that page. “No way. We’ve got to come up with something else.”

Faculty members struggle with interpreting assessment results with an eye on equity.

Dabney has been asked to join the follow-up gifted meeting on Platte since she works with him twice each week. Annette is glad to have someone else at the table who personally knows Platte, even though she knows Dabney’s didactic style can sometimes be a turn-off. She’s not surprised to see Dabney jump right into the fray.

“Even though our society is made up of many diverse cultures, the dominant culture controls all social institutions, including schooling. To function in society, most of its minorities face the decision to assimilate into the main culture,” Annette notes some rolled eyes, but Dabney continues. “This means culturally diverse gifted learners have to work twice as hard to succeed. Using ‘traditional’ standards and methods for assessing ability, for example, penalizes children whose first language isn’t English. Best practice dictates that we accept and nurture the differences in students from diverse cultures. Isn’t the purpose of gifted education programming to help all gifted learners achieve their full potential?”

See definitions dealing with cultural diversity below: 

Jim, the building administrator, lets out a sigh and shakes his head. “I want to remind all of you that we are here to identify students who clearly and fairly demonstrate giftedness…not to change gifted education in this district. I know we all have very busy schedules, so I suggest we refocus ourselves on the task at hand: identifying our gifted students.”

No one really likes to disagree with Jim. He runs the school like a battle ship, keeping one eye on scores and the other on public relations. Annette wonders how parent perceptions—especially the parents of gifted students, who tend to be super-involved—might shape Jim’s position.

Jim continues, “I think we’re really doing this young man a disservice by placing him in the gifted program. If he’s different from the other students, he will feel out-of-place and with his language barrier, he won’t be able to keep up.”

“I have to agree with Jim. I don’t think Platte should be considered for services at this time,” adds Alice, the school psychologist. “His scores simply are not up to par. It’s not ‘common practice’ to use the subtest scores. The composite score is the ‘real’ representation of Platte’s ability—and it shows he doesn’t belong.”