Monday, April 27, 2009

Another check

No word yet from the principal on his conversation with the curriculum director, although I didn't really expect to hear from him before this afternoon. We did hear back from the psychologist today and I talked to her at length about the situation and about the testing options and procedures. I liked her and I think AJ will too. We made an appointment for 5/19 to take the WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children), one of the most commonly used IQ tests. We could also have chosen the Stanford-Binet, but the psychologist recommended the WISC for AJ as its scoring tends to favor highly verbal children. It is an individually administered test that will take about 2 hours. AJ will be able to take breaks when he needs them and can bring a snack. Test administrators are allowed to prompt if the child doesn't answer right away and there are sample questions he can try for each section to make sure he understands the instructions. This will all be a big improvement over the OLSAT. Also, we will get the scores immediately and a more detailed written report a week or so later. There will also be a follow-up meeting, either in person or by phone, to go over the results and what they mean. This all sounds very good. The one drawback is the cost -- $425. So we're still hoping the school thing comes through, but it's nice to have a backup plan in place.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Another meeting down. How many to go?

I met with the principal of AJ's school today. Mr. Spy stayed home, as this seemed like more of a formality. It turned out, however, to be quite productive, I think. One of the things that has helped immensely in all of this is that there is excellent communication between the various people we've been talking to. When AJ's teacher notified us about her concerns about the test scores, she also talked to the gifted teacher and the principal. When we talked to the gifted teacher, she filled in the classroom teacher and the principal. So everyone knows what is going on. This, I am learning, does not always happen.

The principal is also on our side. Although he is not the one who makes decisions on variance from district curriculum policy, he does have the ear of the person who does and he is going to do what he can to help. He had, in fact, already mentioned that there was a problem to the curriculum director who told him that this problem was not uncommon and that they made decisions on a case by case basis, which sounds promising. So in our meeting, he wanted details so he could most effectively make the case. He thought that we should probably talk to her directly too, but thought it would be best if he spoke to her first and then had her contact us before the end of next week. He asked a lot of questions and I gave him a lot of paperwork, which he said he would copy and drive over to the district office on his way home today. So things are moving at a reasonable pace. If only I could get the psychologists to call me back. It is, apparently, the busy season for shrinks.

Next step

Another day, another meeting with the school. I wish I could compress all these meetings into a smaller timeframe. The more time passes between them, the more I start losing my nerve. This one should be perfunctory -- asking permission from the gatekeeper. So why am I nervous?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Waiting some more

First of all, I would like to apologize for the ads that are appearing on this site. I'm not sure how they got there or how to move or eliminate them. Until I have time to figure it out, you'll have to put up with them. On the plus side, they earned 6 whole cents last night. Just doing my part for the economy.

A couple of more things have happened on the testing front. We have an appointment with the school principal, but not until Friday. I don't want to talk to anyone at the district level before I talk to him, so having to wait a few days will slow us down, but hopefully not too much. I think maintaining the goodwill of the school is too important to mess around with, so we're back in waiting mode. I've also contacted a psychologist about testing. Depending on the cost of the tests, we may just go ahead and do it. Or we may wait and see what we can accomplish with the school. Either way, though, I'm going to talk to the district about waiving the minimum scores. I feel that the weighting of the test as compared to other methods of evaluation is problematic and it doesn't do what the state statutes aim to set up, which is to give students with test-taking disadvantages (the state is particularly concerned with disadvantages caused by language barriers and socio-economic class, which often fall along racial lines) an alternate route in. It would appear that the weighting will probably maintain the status quo -- a gifted program full of wealthy white kids (While we're not wealthy, we're not impoverished either. Despite my own opinions about my personal finances, I count us in that category. We have the know-how and means to find private testing. Not everyone does).

We did talk to AJ about the situation last night. He brought it up. He knew we'd met with the gifted teacher. He also knew something we didn't -- his friend got an envelope from the gifted teacher in class yesterday and he didn't. AJ, probably rightly, assumed that it was about getting into the gifted program and he wanted to know why he didn't get one. So we told him the whole story. We emphasized that the test was not a good test for him, that it wasn't a problem with the way he took it, but with the test itself and the way the school made decisions about it and we assured him that we and his teachers were doing our best to make sure he got into the program. But he still felt bad, like he did something wrong. "Why was it so easy for him?" he asked about his friend at bedtime last night. "Why did he get in just like that and it's so hard for me?" It was a sensible question. AJ often works with his friend, but AJ is working at a level above him in both math and reading. We talked about how people's brains work differently. How comparing yourself to others doesn't really work that well. AJ's friend is quiet, a good listener, and a follower of instructions. AJ is loud, easily distracted, and a questioner of everything. They both belong in the program, but they are not going to get there by the same road.

But I am worried about the toll this may be taking on AJ. He has always been called "the smart kid." And no matter what we say, he's not feeling like the smart kid right now. He is a kid who needs a lot of outside validation. He is suspicious of reassurance. He thinks it means we're hiding something. Before we keep going, I want to make sure he's up for it. He says he is, but I'm not sure if he's thought about his options. And I need to figure out how to help him trust himself to give himself his own feedback. He's been going through a very difficult time lately -- getting argumentative at home and disobedient at school. I want him to be confident and challenged, to know his abilities even if others deny them. If I had the formula for that, I'd be a wealthy woman.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Mixed Results

So. The meeting. It was about what I expected. Maybe even a little better, although not as good as I'd hoped. Here's the rundown.

The Bad:

We got a lot of information, but unfortunately, we were not able to get much of a breakdown of AJ's scores -- just a verbal and a math. No explanation. AJ really did not do well on the OLSAT. Or at least that's how it looked to me, although the gifted teacher said that for most kids, these would be really good scores. They're just not good enough for these purposes. And here's the weird part. The thing he really didn't do well on was the verbal section. In every other test he's taken, including the previous aptitude testing, his verbal scores were off the charts high -- 99.98-100th percentile on everything. That I was not expecting, and it speaks even more to the fact that this was a bad test-taking experience. I don't trust the scores at all.

Unfortunately, the school district thinks highly enough of the test that the scores on the OLSAT count twice as much as teacher recommendations and work portfolio (the other components of the "matrix" used to determine admission candidacy) combined. AJ missed the cutoff for the program by one point in both math and language and it's solely based on the OLSAT. Even if he has the maximum scores in all other areas (which have not yet been determined), which seems likely, he will not meet the qualifying numbers. So while the school district is following the letter of Illinois law, which states that gifted programs must use at least three different methods of evaluating each child for the program, the weighting of the test means they are not following the spirit of the law. There is no way to counteract a bad test.

The good:

The gifted teacher is on our side. She is not a fan of the OLSAT for this purpose, she thinks AJ belongs in the program, and she wants to help us.

Next year, he will take the COGAT, which is a much more in-depth and reliable test. Unfortunately, that will not happen until spring. A lot of kids in the past have not qualified via the OLSAT but have qualified on the COGAT (shouldn't that be telling the district something about the testing cocktail?), so AJ would definitely not be alone.

The school district can't retest (there is a narrow window for administration of the OLSAT), but they will accept Stanford-Binet or WISC scores from private testing in place of the OLSAT.

Time is not a big factor. All AJ's teachers and the gifted teacher think this is a glitch and that he belongs in the gifted cluster. The teachers have a lot of say in the classroom organization so we have all but a guarantee that he will be in the right class. Even if we are unable to get done what we need to until the next school year starts, they can add him to the program as soon as the paperwork comes through.

The plan:

However, if we don't deal with either the district policy or the testing, he won't get the pullout program, which is an hour a week each for reading and math and supplements the regular curriculum. The gifted teacher can't fight the test scores. The best she can do is make sure he maxes out every other category, but because of the way the test is weighted, it's not enough to reach the cutoff because of the weighting of the test scores. I can see why AJ's teacher said she'd never known a kid who didn't meet the minimum OLSAT requirements get into the program. It's not mathematically possible.

So we're going to pursue this on two fronts. I will talk first to the school principal (who is probably not going to be able to help, but who needs not to be leapt over) and then to the district director of curriculum about waiving the cutoff, hopefully tomorrow. Since AJ's only down by one point and we have a lot of other evidence, that might work. However, the gifted teacher, after looking up the aptitude test that AJ took last year, which she had not previously heard of (Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test or KBIT-II, done in conjunction with KTEA-II) didn't think it was comprehensive enough to replace the OLSAT scores, so if they're not willing to waive the rules, the only way we can get him into the program is if he has qualifying scores from another test. This means time and expense on our part, but it's worth it if we have to. So I will also be making an appointment for AJ with a psychologist Siren recommended for additional testing.

We still haven't talked to AJ about this. We're going to have to eventually, I think. But it doesn't seem the right time.

The Question:

So if AJ's kindergarten, first and second grad teachers all recommend him without reservation for the program, as does the gifted teacher -- the people who actually work with him regularly -- why can't the school district make an exception?

Because they're still bureaucrats at heart, I guess. More fun and games ahead.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


I spent some time today getting organized for our meeting tomorrow with the gifted teacher. As part of my preparation, I organized all of my files of AJ's work and test scores and the research I've done and put together a one page argument for inclusion. The document is one I will be able to use to appeal his case, if we need to. But in putting it together, I realized just how strong our case is. So hopefully we won't need to. AJ scored in the 99th or 100th percentile on most of the standardized tests the school gave him in the fall (on the most important of the tests, as well as several others, he didn't miss a single question). Even by the school's own means of measurement, the most recent test looks like an anomaly. And we've got recommendations, or promises thereof, from every teacher he's ever had. Fingers crossed.

Friday, April 17, 2009

School update

I made an appointment with AJ's classroom teacher for this afternoon in hopes of getting a little more information about what happened during the test and what to expect on Monday. She was very helpful.

Apparently, AJ did fine on the parts of the test with written instructions. But in later parts of the test, the instructions were read aloud. The teacher was only allowed to read them once. These are the sections that gave him trouble. Also, in at least one of the sections in which he was below the cutoff, he missed it only by one point.

AJ's teacher has already talked to the gifted teacher and the school principal about her feelings about AJ needing to be in the gifted program. But she also said that she has never known of a case where they've taken a kid who didn't meet the minimum test scores. She thought we had a good chance, though, because we've got so much other documentation. But she said, "Bring everything you've got." And so we will.

When I spoke toLSM yesterday, she suggested three steps, which we plan to follow.

1. We will go into the meeting assuming that he will be admitted into the program with no further action required. We will bring all the documentation we have to support his case.

2. If that isn't enough, we will ask the school to retest him before the end of the school year. If they won't, we will offer to have him privately tested again.

3. If, after appealing his case to the teachers and principal that still isn't enough, we will take it to the administrative level. I think it very unlikely that we would need to do that, but you never know.

And now all there is to do is get his portfolio in order and wait for Monday. It's looking like Mr. Spy will not be able to attend the meeting with me, so I also should spend some time practicing to be a hardass. Wish me luck

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I am feeling a little more rational about everything today (or perhaps I have just temporarily channeled my irrationality towards the government for making the annual filing of taxes so arduous and incomprehensible). Those of you who have commented and emailed have all helped immensely. This post will address your comments and finish with a plan of action.

My Kids Mom asked about the possibility of the school retesting. I'm not yet sure what the answer to that is. The classroom teacher says that they will retest. She thought they'd retest before the next official spring testing period, but she wasn't sure. She was, however, reasonably sure that they would not retest before the start of the next school year, which, in my opinion, is too late. I'm also skeptical of retaking a test that didn't work the first time. But in that regard, we'll do what we have to.

Jill and Eleanor, I agree that some gifted programs are largely a waste of time. However, so is the regular curriculum a waste of time for AJ. Some gifted programs are better than others and I'm not at all sure that a pull out program is the best way to go. However, in my own personal experience, pull out programs -- even bad ones -- kept me from total school shutdown on more than one occasion. I wouldn't have survived the second grade without one. AJ has been getting a great deal of curriculum intervention in the classroom for the last three years. That may not continue at the same level once he hits third grade and there is a policy for gifted students that doesn't accommodate him. That would be deadly for AJ, who is already struggling with boredom-related behavior issues. Moreover, while the school should be looking for ways to include AJ, there are a couple of reasons why they might not be. The first is practical -- it is an underfunded, overcrowded school in a semi-rural, largely blue collar area with a huge ESL population. They are looking for ways to cut down on programs, not expand them. The second is that I think AJ doesn't fit their idea of a gifted kid. As Siren said, his brain is wired differently. He doesn't necessarily do better at classroom work than his peers. It depends on what it is and whether he thinks it's important. And like many very gifted kids, he is a pattern seeker and often sees options others don't. This means he doesn't perform as well on multiple choice tests as you might expect. He doesn't know how to sift through the many options that sound correct to him and figure out what the test is likely to be looking for.

If he's not a good fit with their idea of gifted, does it matter if he isn't in the program? Maybe it's for the best. But there are several reasons why I think it is still important that he be included in the school's gifted program.

1. As Jeanne mentioned, identification is important. It sticks with a kid through school. He can get into the program later, but it would be better and easier for him to get in sooner and stay there. Regardless of the nature of the program, identification keeps doors open for him.

2. Self-esteem. Readersguide put this well in her comments. He is used to thinking of himself as gifted, as "the smart kid." And while he is very ambivalent about the label, there is no question that being in the gifted cluster class without being in the gifted program would negatively affect his self-esteem.

3. Peer contact. The gifted pull-out sessions is the only time AJ would be able to be in a group with other gifted kids. It's something he looks for and doesn't get nearly often enough. When we were on vacation and met a friend's daughter, he asked later, "Is she gifted? Because she seems like she would be gifted." And I had to agree. As Siren put it on the phone yesterday, "smart people can smell other smart people. (Or, as her son, listening in, put it, "Scientists can smell other scientists -- because scientists are smart people.").

4. We can't afford private school and Mr. Spy has made me promise not to homeschool.

5. It's where he should be.

Lass, regarding yoru mom, I think I'll hold off on that until after Monday's meeting. I want more information. But if she has any general advice for this situation, I'd love to hear it. And thanks for offering.

Jeanne, I will definitely talk to his teacher further. I would also like to talk to his first grade teacher, although I want to tread carefully so that I don't upset a balance of power. I was pleased to see that in her reply to my request for a meeting, the gifted teacher had cced AJ's classroom teacher and the school principal. This really needs to be bigger than me one-on-one with the gifted teacher.

Freshhell -- I think (hope) you're right about AJ doing okay either way. The ADA part I know about at least. I filed the special services request form for AJ last year and I'll do it again for next year. If nothing else, it provides some continuity in paperwork.

Siren, I've been on the fence about being direct about AJ's giftedness with him. I think we mostly have been direct. But I'm so uncomfortable with the label, that I tend to balk at it. We have not talked to AJ about the test scores. I don't plan to talk about them with him before Monday. I want to find out what it's going to mean for him before we have that discussion and I don't want him to be feeling discouraged. He is exceptionally hard on himself in such situations and he has been going through a difficult time lately where he is constantly feeling like he's not good enough at, well, just about everything. I don't want him to think I care too much about the test scores too much, because I really don't. What I care about is that they might not reflect who he really is and what he can really do.

And so, the plan. I am assuming the test scores are a huge problem, because that is what this short conversation with AJ's classroom teacher has led me to believe. But I don't really have all the information. I will on Monday. So part one of the plan is to get as much information as possible. That means talking to everybody I can talk to and finding out what the options are. It means putting together a portfolio for AJ for our Monday meeting. And it means giving some thought about what we will do if the school tries to shut us out.

The next part of the plan is wait and see. Wait and see what comes out of the meeting. Then we'll be able to evaluate any necessary course of action.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sheep and Goats

I was about to start my weekly volunteer stint in AJ's classroom. This morning I was helping students edit letters they'd written to each other and to their teacher ("Dear Mrs. F, How old are you? May I guess 29?"). Mrs. F. came out of the classroom to talk for a minute while the students were rummaging through their desks in preparation for their next activity.

"We got the test scores yesterday," she said. I knew instantly that she was talking about the Otis-Lennon test that all the 2d graders took earlier this year. "It's not good." AJ didn't make the cut-off for the gifted program. "He was close, but he didn't make it."

This is not good news. Although also not entirely unexpected. This is AJ's first real experience with group standardized testing. The testing we did privately last year was one on one. Moreover, he had never done questions like this before and the school did nothing to prep the students. For a kid like AJ, who tends to freeze when he sees something he is not 100% sure he knows, this is not a good thing. From all I had read about the test, it was set up to play to his weaknesses. Many of the questions are somewhat ambiguous. Students are supposed to look for the best of several answers that may be right. AJ sees too many options in such situations. Instead of thinking it through, when there are multiple options, he shuts down.
Mrs. F. went on to say that AJ appeared agitated during one section of the test in particular. She thought he was guessing because he didn't understand what he was supposed to do. It was a section with pictures instead of math or words. My suspicion is that this test has tested his ability to take tests, not his "mental capability," as it says it is supposed to."

He is apparently not alone. A couple of studies have been done that have demonstrated very gifted kids often do poorly on the Otis-Lennon. Still, it is one of the most commonly administered tests for identifying gifted children, mainly because it is cheaper to administer than most tests. It takes only 45 minutes and requires no special training for the administrator. And considering that, many reviews suggest it is a pretty good test for the investment. But it doesn't seem to be very accurate. I've seen variability rates as great as 9%. But still, how do we process not making the cutoff on one test and 99.9th percentile on another? And am I wrong to give more credence to a test where a psychologist sat down with my kid for over an hour and talked to him over a fill in the bubble test that took 40 minutes that was taken in a classroom full of distractions?

We are trying to figure out what to do next. These kind of things make me second-guess myself all the time. Am I pushing too hard? Am I kidding myself? And then AJ starts doing something at home where it becomes clear to me that we are not in error. We have off-the-charts test scores form private testing and two classroom teachers who will vouch for him. That should be enough. But as I understand it, school policy bases admission to the program on Otis-Lennon scores alone. I can certainly understand why a school would have such a policy. You need to be able to draw a line in the sand. But does it really make sense to draw the line in this particular case?

Mrs. F. said she can make sure he gets into the cluster class with the other gifted kids next year, but she thought we'd better get involved if we want him in the pull-out program. We're meeting with the gifted teacher on Monday to figure out what the story is. But my first contact with her was not encouraging and we're preparing for a fight.

I'm putting together a dossier which includes AJ's previous test scores (even though the school already has them) as well as written reports from his teachers at a summer camp for gifted kids last year, a recommendation written for his application to the camp by his first grade teacher and, hopefully, some of the articles about the fallibility of the test. I may also contact the university where we had AJ tested last spring, which offers some resources for parents of gifted kids and may be able to help.

And for my own sanity, I called Siren to bend her ear about it. She suggested we consider offering to take him for a full IQ test if necessary.

Logically, I would think that the school would have enough grounds to make an exception -- we have test scores and teacher recommendations. That really should be enough. But we haven't had to confront a formal policy before. We're not sure what's going to happen.

But another issue is how much we want to fight for this. We don't really know much about the program and I have to say that my interactions with the teacher who runs it have not been overwhelming. Is this something we should even be worried about? Is clustering enough? He will be tested again next year. Should we just wait? Siren rightly suggested we hear what they have to say. I knew I could count on her to keep me from going off half cocked. So I am resigned to wait until Monday. This is good, because it leaves me enough time to have nine heart attacks over my nearly-but-not-quite finished taxes.

And I was hoping for an easy transition this year. I guess there's no such thing.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Book Review: MVP* *Magellan Voyage Project by Douglas Evans

MVP* (*Magellan Voyage Project)
by Douglas Evans
Pictures by John Shelley
Asheville, NC: Front Street Press, 2004
ISBN 1-932425-13-6

I picked Douglas Evans' MVP off the bookshelf of AJ's school library on one of my volunteer days thinking a book about sports might be something he'd like. It turned out not to be a book about sports at all, but something much better. I think AJ read it 5 times at least before we took it back to the library.

MVP is an adventure story of the first order. It includes many of the elements that make AJ love a book:

• Boy protagonist

• Adventure that takes place in the "real" world (i.e., no magic/supernatural stuff)

• Word play or puzzles (in this case, lots of palindromes)

• Kids having adventures not only without parental supervision, but entirely without their parents knowledge.

• Kid conquers world! (in this case, literally as well as metaphorically)

• Silliness abounds

• So does excitement

Evans introduces his protagonist Adam Story, who narrates the story, with a classic palindrome: "Madam, I'm Adam." Palindromes permeate the book -- many of the characters have palindromic names (I'd venture to say that the palindromes seem to hint at the character's helpfulness or trustworthiness, but I haven't thoroughly checked to see if this is true throughout).

Adam is a loner, although not entirely by choice. He lives in relative poverty with his mom on the wrong side of the tracks, but attends public school in a fancier district because his mother works in the school's cafeteria. He feels isolated by his circumstances On the afternoon of his 12th birthday, while he is closing down the school's Homework Club, he is visited by a strange man in a cape who invites him on an adventure: to circumnavigate the globe in 40 days. The man reveals himself as Prince Olioli Oh XL of the kingdom of Babababad, and the producer of the Magellan Voyage Project, the organization behind the journey. Prince Oh offers to fully and generously finance the trip and to arrange it so Adam's mother doesn't even know he's gone. If he accomplishes the trip within the time frame, he will be rewarded with 4 million dollars.

Adam deliberates but eventually chooses to take the challenge. His journey introduces him to dozens of characters, some helpful, some harmful. He sees the world and gradually learns that the Magellan Voyage Project and Prince Oh himself are not quite what they seemed at first.

The story is fast-paced, exciting, clever and funny. Like any good adventure story there are lots of twists and turns, but the protagonist triumphs in the end. Its only weakness is that in prioritizing plot and pacing, character development gets short shrift. I would have liked a little more depth in the characters we spend the most time with, particularly Adam and one of his fellow travelers, Meredith. But overall, this is an excellent book for for elementary-middle school readers (and their parents). It's also very well suited to younger advanced readers like AJ. It's adventurous, but not too scary, and all subject matter is totally appropriate for younger readers. And the cartoonish line drawings throughout the book are engaging. AJ, Mr. Spy and I all loved it. And we are certainly not alone -- MVP was one of the nominees for the 2008 Rebecca Caudill award for Young Readers in our home state of Illinois.

As a parent and educator, I'd also add that there is a lot of potential for educational tie-ins. AJ read up on the countries the character passed through. We followed Adam's journey on a globe. AJ planned his own around the world routes, using maps and internet sites, just like Adam did. We will definitely be checking out Evans' other books and as for MVP, we're all hoping for a sequel.