Close the Gap: Washington’s Gifted Children Deserve Better

Austina De Bonte and M. René Islas

A year ago, an extraordinary group of parents, teachers and advocates in Washington made a renewed effort to strengthen programs focused on educating our gifted and talented children from all backgrounds. Their aggressive and passionate efforts, as well as intense media scrutiny, began to right the woefully inequitable situation of Washington’s gifted education program.

Now, we need our legislators to finish this important job this legislative session.

For many years, advocates have fought to secure the necessary level of state funding to support the Highly Capable Program (HCP) so it has the resources needed to identify and serve all students, particularly those from economically disadvantaged and minority populations that have historically been under-represented in gifted education.

While the landmark HB 2242, passed last year, addresses the state’s educational funding shortfall, the majority of school districts in the state are still not using the new money to provide more equitable access to gifted education services.

As a result, far too many students of color as well as those from low-income families, those with disabilities or those who are English Language Learners (ELL), are not even being considered for HCP qualification because a teacher or parent did not recommend them in time for referral deadline.

A new study by the Fordham Institute, Is There a Gifted Gap?, confirms this under-identification, finding that “high-poverty schools in [Washington] are also much less likely to have gifted programs than the national average,” and that Hispanic and black students are under-represented in gifted education programs compared to their overall student population.

Thankfully, a group of lawmakers has recently introduced bipartisan and bicameral legislation to address this deficiency by providing the additional clarity and guidance needed to tear down these barriers and realize the vision of HB 2242.

The new bill – SB 6508 and HB 2927, Equity in Highly Capable Identification – will require the Superintendent of Public Instruction to confirm that each school district has policies and procedures in place to identify highly capable children and that these screening practices be nondiscriminatory and prioritize equitable identification of students from low-income families.

The legislation will require universal screening of all students at distinct times in their educational journeys. Districts must use multiple criteria that include multiple pathways for students to qualify for HCP and should base decisions against local norms for that district. Testing must occur during the school day and in the student’s home school, meaning no student will ever be missed because he or she could not travel to a test site on a weekend.

The National Association for Gifted Children has long supported the need for accessible professional development, and provides strategies and resources designed to meaningfully engage students from all backgrounds. The highly capable student bill also recognizes the importance of well-trained teachers and other staff and requires teachers, principals, counselors, administrators and members of selection committees receive ongoing professional development focused on the needs of highly capable students.

And, importantly, the bill will require regular monitoring and reporting to ensure districts are following the policy and to evaluate its impact on student identification.

We applaud Senators Rivers, Rolfes, Kuderer, and Saldaña and Representatives Vick, Harris, Senn, Frame, Young, Muri and Kloba for introducing the bills, but the work is not done. The limited 60-day legislative session necessitates that lawmakers move with alacrity to advance this legislation. A House committee hearing has been held, but many more steps remain with no time to waste.

Washington’s gifted and talented children should not have to wait until another year; they deserve better and our legislators must act.

Austina De Bonte is president of NW Gifted Child Association in Seattle, WA, and M. René Islas is the executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children in Washington, DC.