That word is on the minds of many Loudoun families right now. Each spring, county educators evaluate thousands of students to identify those who could use the extra intellectual stimulation provided by the school system’s gifted programs.
Many consider the gifted program a track that will give students a better shot at getting into magnet programs like Loudoun’s Academy of Science and Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and ultimately top universities.
It’s a concept that has pushed a number of local families to enroll children as young as kindergarten into private tutoring programs with the hope that they will have a better chance of landing a spot in the FUTURA program in elementary school.
Ramana Palepu, co-founder of Study Concepts Inc., with centers in Ashburn and Chantilly, said test prep courses give young students an educational foundation that cannot only improve their chances of getting into a gifted program, but also can help them throughout their school career.
“Essentially, the coaching that we do is to enhance kids’ foundational skills—including skills in testing, logic, reasoning—that will help them get better grades and look good in the eyes of their teachers, who recommends them for the gifted programs,” Palepu said.
A handful of private companies in Northern Virginia provide after-school and weekend courses for students starting in kindergarten with the stated goal of helping them score higher on the gifted eligibility exams.
Every Loudoun County Public Schools second-grader takes the Cognitive Abilities Test and every third-grader takes the Naglieri Non-verbal Ability Test. Students who score in the 97th percentile or higher on those tests are entered into the pool of candidates to be screened for the county’s FUTURA program. Students who are not in the pool because of a lower test score may also be referred by parents, teachers and administrators.
Palepu said his company is not geared toward teaching students to “game” the exams. He explained that the tests’ questions are not publically available and, similar to an IQ exam, the test questions are designed to measure somewhat innate reasoning and problem-solving skills. His goal is to orient the students to the types of questions they will be asked.
“We even practice how to fill in bubble sheets, so they’re not seeing all this when they first take the test and they come into it with confidence,” Palepu said. The company website says that three-fourths of its most recent class have scored high enough on the exams to be considered for FUTURA.
McLean-based Young Scholars Circle, which also enrolls Loudoun students, offers similar gifted prep classes. Krish Pelleti, with Young Scholars Circle, introduces kindergartners and first graders to verbal analogies, quantitative reasoning and strategies to find relationships between numbers and words that will help them on the gifted entrance exams.
Although the program boasts a 98 percent success rate for gifted placement, Pelleti said enrollment in gifted programs is not how he measures success. His sights are set years down the road.
“We’re primarily preparing students to go to AOS and TJ,” he said, “And in order to get them ready for those schools, we need to catch kids at this age.”
[See related column: “The Truth About High-Achieving Versus Gifted Students.”]
Wendy S. King, Loudoun County’s gifted education supervisor, fields a lot of questions about what it takes to get into the gifted programs. “We try to demystify the eligibility process,” she said.
Her staff looks at three factors: students’ scores on the two ability tests, teacher input, and students’ work portfolio. Students have to show support in two of the three areas to be found eligible.
“Parents are thinking they’re doing the best thing for their child by doing the test prep, but this one test isn’t the only thing we’re looking at when we determine eligibility,” King said.
Plus, she added, the tests are designed to measure reasoning and problem solving, not whether a student has studied and mastered curriculum. “Rather than prepping children for the tests, we suggest maybe looking into enrichment opportunities for their child to let them explore their areas of interest.”
More than 2,000 Loudoun County students are referred for the gifted programs each year. King’s department evaluates each one and, generally, finds about half eligible for services. On average, 112 families appeal their decisions each year.
Chris Croll, a parent of two Leesburg students in gifted programs, said parents should trust the selection process in place at Loudoun County Public Schools. The school system meets national gold standards in gifted identification, she said.
Croll became a bit of an expert on the topic when she wrote a 22-page position paper on gifted education best practices on behalf of nonprofit Loudoun County Parents of Gifted Students. She founded the group, known as LoCoPOGS, to serve as an information and support resource for parents. The group’s membership is made up of more than 750 families with students attending public, private and home schools.
“The fact that Loudoun tests everybody, that shows they are doing some things right to identify kids of every background,” even those students whose families are not recommending them for the program, Croll said.
‘Not a Privilege’
Nudging students to get into a gifted program may not be doing them a service, according to some Loudoun educators.
The district website explains that public schools are mandated to provide gifted programing for students whose academic needs are not getting met in the typical classroom setting, similar to special education services.
Croll said that the term “gifted” makes it sound like it’s a program for simply high-achieving students, but it’s generally for students who learn differently than their peers and often struggle in the typical classroom setting.
“There’s a misconception that FUTURA is an advanced academic program, where instead it offers adjunct learning activities to engage these children intellectually at a pace and depth they need,” she said. “If your kid is satisfied in the classroom, that is ideal.”
Deep Sran, founder and academic lead at Loudoun School for the Gifted, said the test prep courses that are being offered to increasingly younger students have created a bit of an arms race.
“I understand the pressure to do it—once a few start doing it, you feel like your kid has to do it to keep up,” he said. “The purpose of the gifted program is to meet their needs that aren’t being met otherwise. You don’t really accomplish much if you coach them up for the test and it looks like their needs aren’t being met.”
The Loudoun School for the Gifted in Ashburn does look at placement in FUTURA and Spectrum, the middle school gifted program, as one indicator of whether a student is a good fit for the school, he added. But the small private school, and now colleges, are starting to look for students who have something more than what a gifted designation or other achievements students can test prep for.
“They want to know what makes you unique and authentic,” he said. “They’re looking for people who add value, who are able to collaborate. Because so many are prepping all the time.”