For Talented Students, Challenges to Grow

Gifted students are often ignored due to efforts to raise other students' test scores.

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Brielle Tucker, a "math rock star," switched from public to private school to get more one-on-one attention.

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In fifth grade, Brielle Tucker was so good with numbers that her teacher put her and four other classmates in a group called the math rock stars. But soon, the novelty wore off. "Here's the textbook," Brielle, now 14, remembers her teacher at a Washington, D.C., elementary school telling her. "If you need help, you can consult the back of the book or you can ask me, but I really need to help the other students catch up."

Brielle's experience exposes a cruel irony of NCLB policy: High-achieving kids who easily can pass the standardized test requirements are often overlooked as schools focus on raising the scores of those students in the middle of the curve. "These [gifted] kids don't really count for anything in the federal accountability system," says Ann Sheldon, executive director of the Ohio Association for Gifted Children. Adding requirements to the NCLB law to monitor the progress of gifted students would give schools motivation, but such revisions would strengthen NCLB when the political momentum seems to be pushing the opposite way.

"Our federal commitment is about those disadvantaged kids, and by damn, we're not doing right by them," Secretary Spellings says. "We don't have $12 billion for a gifted-and-talented program at the federal level. But that doesn't mean it's not an important priority for state and local districts." Yet states appear to be following the federal mandates, effectively focusing on those students below the proficiency levels. In districts in Ohio, for example, budgets for gifted education either have been slashed or have remained flat since the implementation of NCLB, leading some schools to dismantle their accelerated-learning programs and move those instructors into the neediest classrooms. Some states are starting to focus on high-achieving students. Minnesota increased spending for gifted education after reports that the state's brightest students were falling behind. In Kentucky, lawmakers approved funding to open a public high school on the Western Kentucky University campus to act as a pipeline for future scientists and engineers.

Representative Miller has proposed giving schools credit for improving the performance of "proficient students," the category gifted students fall into, as a way to lessen the focus on students on the bubble. NCLB's brief history already shows that if you track the student group, it will get the teachers' attention. That could apply to smart kids, too.

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