Advanced Students Left Behind, Critics Say

By Crawford, Amy | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 16, 2009 | Go to article overview

Advanced Students Left Behind, Critics Say


Crawford, Amy, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Jonathan Miller could talk when he was a year old and read by the time he was 4. At that age, he memorized diagrams of human anatomy, drawing and naming the digestive, endocrine and circulatory systems.

"His language progressed really quickly," recalled his mother, Rhonda Miller of Harrison City, who noticed similar abilities in Jonathan's younger sister, Kristen.

But by the time her children were in school, pride in their abilities had given way to frustration. The lessons were too easy to hold their interest, and the children who loved learning began to resent school.

"I would finish my work and just be sitting there," said Jonathan, 17, a junior at Penn-Trafford High School. "I would read a book, and the teacher would yell at me for being a distraction. School just became a hassle."

"Many people believe gifted kids can take care of themselves," said Miller, who is the president of a local chapter of the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education. "But that consigns a lot of kids to fall by the wayside and languish in boredom."

While students such as the Miller children have long been bored at school, parents and advocates say that academically advanced students have been especially neglected during the past several years. The problem is most acute in the lower grade levels, before honors and advanced placement courses become an option.

Many blame the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which has focused schools' attention on struggling students.

A study by the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Institute shows that while students at lower achievement levels have progressed significantly since No Child Left Behind was passed, students at the top have stagnated. The researchers surveyed teachers, two-thirds of whom said that struggling students get the most attention in their classrooms. The needs of advanced students, said more than three- quarters, "take a back seat."

In November, however, Pennsylvania updated a law that requires schools to provide special programs for gifted students. The new law will decrease the number of gifted students in a teacher's caseload, broaden the screening process for determining who is gifted, and increase state oversight of programs.

The change has encouraged some area school districts to take another look at the way they handle advanced students.

"The law has become increasingly demanding," said Jay Tray, a Penn-Trafford school director and retired administrator.

Like all school districts, Tray said, Penn-Trafford has put resources into raising struggling students to proficiency.

"There are very few schools that do not focus, for their own survival, on bringing up the bottom," he said. "Higher achievers are put on pause."

At the elementary and middle school levels, Penn-Trafford students who test in the gifted range take a class called "Spectrum" a few times a week. There, they participate in enrichment activities, such as trivia contests and photography projects. While students enjoy Spectrum and parents approve of it, both say that the program does not meet all of the students' needs.

At its March meeting, the school board tentatively adopted a plan to accelerate academic subjects for students who are performing above their grade level. Greg Karazsia, who took over as special education director last year, said the change was part of the district's "Learning for All" policy, which aims to tailor lessons to each student's level.

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