Other than self-reported surveys from school districts once a year, the Wyoming Department of Education has no way of knowing whether the $2.6 million it spends annually on gifted and talented education is used to educate kids with special talents.
Ten of the state’s 48 school districts don’t even have a gifted education program, according to the most recent data from the department. However, these districts each still receive the roughly $29.19 per student in state funds earmarked for gifted education. The money is applied to the districts’ general funds with the suggestion it be used to fulfill the agency’s statutory requirement to provide programs and services for gifted and talented students beyond the regular school program.
The state doesn’t define what a gifted or talented child is, or suggest how these children be identified, Wyoming Department of Education educational consultant Brian Aragon said. As a result, he said, the definition and identification process varies greatly from district to district.
”It’s not up to us to decide for the districts how they identify a gifted and talented student,” Aragon said. “Every district in the state does it differently.”
Some districts use a standardized test, he said, often admitting students who score well above average. Others use a cognitive abilities assessment. Some create a referral form for parents or teachers, or a survey for students.
The state’s job is to make sure the district has a process to identify gifted children in its care, Aragon said, not to dictate the process.
John and Joy Lewis knew their daughter had eye troubles, but did not anticipate a low score on a test would exclude her from the gifted program.
The Teton County School District second-grader was gifted by all other measures, they said. Standardized test scores in the top five percentile and outstanding teacher reviews suggested their daughter should have no trouble scoring high enough on the the Cognitive Abilities Test, or CogAT, to qualify for the district’s gifted program.
On test day, though, their daughter’s teacher noticed something was wrong.
“Her teacher noticed trouble with her eyes,” Joy Lewis said.
The teacher saw their daughter staring at the test page as if over-thinking the problems, and shared the observation after Lewis inquired about her daughter's test scores, which were too low to admit her into the program, Lewis said.
Despite debate about whether board policy would allow it, the Teton County School District ultimately offered the Lewis's daughter a retest on a different version of the CoGAT. Even without the eye problem resolved, she made it into the program on a second try.
A question remained for the Lewises: Does relying on a standardized test to determine a child’s giftedness depict the most accurate picture of who should receive extra services and who shouldn’t? A test, they said, shouldn’t be used to keep children out.
”I’m concerned that the system is missing children that should be identified for additional services,” Joy Lewis said.
State statute has little to say about the matter.
The one statute regarding gifted and talented education in Wyoming says such students have “outstanding abilities,” are “capable of high performance,” and have abilities, talent and potential that require different programs and services beyond what’s normally offered in schools “in order to realize their contribution to self and society.”
That, Aragon, the educational consultant, said, is not a definition.
”Basically what that’s saying is it’s left up to the district as to how they decipher gifted and talented,” he said.
Without a definition of a gifted child, guidance for how to best identify and serve those children, and some oversight to ensure state funds are going toward gifted education, the inconsistencies among districts will continue, Natrona County School District Gifted and Talented Coordinator Wendolyn McGregor said.
“There’s nothing in state statute that suggests a best practicing on identifying,” McGregor said. “There’s no criteria of what’s gifted.”
McGregor and a gifted-education colleague from Campbell County, Anna Kluver, partnered to launch a nonprofit resource group for parents and educators to advocate gifted education in Wyoming. They named the group the Wyoming Association for Gifted Children, which held its first meeting in August.
“We felt there were too many gifted children that weren’t being identified for whatever reason,” McGregor said. “We wanted to not only bring consistency to the state on what identified gifted children were, we wanted to create something that was for gifted children.”
Smaller districts, Kluver said, may have fewer qualified individuals to support the needs of gifted students. Parents interested in relocating have called her, she said, to get their kids the services they need. Many gifted children are at risk emotionally and are prone to losing interest in school if lessons become too dull, Kluver said.
“As I see it, the goal [of the organization] is to connect parents and educators and administrators, and get them talking to each other,” Kluver said. “Because, especially in Wyoming, we are very isolated — in our smaller districts, especially.”
Wyoming Association for Gifted Children members haven’t talked about whether state policy is sufficient to ensure that gifted and talented funding goes where it should, or the specifics of whether an IQ test or a teacher referral should be more important in deciding which children are gifted, McGregor said. The group is focused on getting the organization off the ground, she said. Meanwhile, it is preparing for the first Wyoming-based gifted and talented education conference in Cody this month.
It soon may advocate for policy, though, regarding resource allocation and other actions that will benefit gifted children, according to a draft of the group’s bylaws.
Some states, for instance, have laws requiring separate funds for gifted and talented programs, ensuring the money is spent specifically on gifted children, Aragon said.
“But our state doesn’t have that,” he said.