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Boys outnumber girls in gifted program

In its seventh year, the Mercer Island School District’s gifted program has become a staple of Island education. As the program expands, school administrators continue to analyze its success and point out areas in need of improvement.

On March 25, Director of Elementary Learning Services Kathy Morrison presented School Board members with the most recent review of MISD’s gifted program, which serves students in grades 3 to 8.

Since its inception in 2004, the program has gradually expanded from grades 3 and 4 in its first year through grade 8 in 2008. According to district statistics, 214 students are currently enrolled in gifted classes.

Over the years, the program has received mostly praise from administrators, teachers and parents.

“There have been tremendous kudos given to our teachers. I was so impressed with what they do to meet the range of student needs in the classroom,” Morrison told School Board members.

Yet the program is not without its criticisms. One issue that is particularly striking is the significant “gender gap” between boys and girls in the gifted program.

According to the program’s enrollment statistics, compiled this year by Morrison, the number of boys enrolled is almost twice that of girls. This is especially true in elementary school, as more girls gradually enter the program in middle school.

A colored graph illustrating enrollment numbers shows that there are 12 boys and three girls in the third-grade 2009-2010 program, 22 boys and 10 girls in the fifth-grade program, 37 boys and 18 girls in the eighth-grade program, and 17 boys and 11 girls in the seventh-grade program. The fourth- and sixth-grade programs show more equal numbers: a ratio of 13 boys to 14 girls (fourth grade) and 27 boys to 30 girls (sixth grade).

The gender disparity has been consistent over the past five years, and Morrison is eager to find out why.

“Our biggest issue is not identifying gifted girls. We know they’re out there but not showing in the 98th percentile [of the Cognitive Abilities (CoGat) Test], in the same ratio as boys,” she said, referring to the national test used to assess gifted students.

The CoGat Test, which is offered (voluntarily) to MISD students in grades 2 through 7, assesses a child’s cognitive ability through reasoning and problem-solving questions in three areas: verbal, non-verbal (spatial) and quantitative. A composite score of all three categories is taken. If the student places in the 98th percentile, he or she qualifies for the gifted program.

Morrison said that a study into why fewer girls are scoring in the 98th percentile would require a good deal of research. And she is open to ideas.

“One recommendation is to review our scoring criteria,” she said. “There is a lot of national data suggesting that girls develop quantitatively later than boys do.”

Linda Morgan, an Islander who studied this topic for her book on child development, “Beyond Smart,” agrees.

“When kids are young, girls develop more readily in verbal areas. Boys develop quicker in spatial areas. I would want to find out whether the test was weighed more in one area than the other,” she said.

Another possible — yet somewhat controversial — theory is that parents are academically pushing their sons harder than their daughters.

“You have to look at the kids being recommended to take the test. Is it because the parents of boys are more interested or because boys are coming to the teachers’ attention more?” Morgan asked rhetorically. “It’s either a judgement call on the part of parents and teachers or it’s the test itself.”

One factor that Morgan suggested could skew results is the ratio of boys to girls who actually take the voluntary test. But according to past years’ numbers, this ratio is more or less split. In 2009, 49 percent of those tested were girls; in 2008, 50 percent were girls, and in 2007, 43 percent were girls.

Indeed, the gifted program’s gender gap is perplexing. But Morrison and her team are committed to researching the matter, and set on finding a solution.

“We want to examine the research and make certain we’re doing everything we can to find those young girls that we know are gifted. It may be that we’re going to have to get creative and adopt a more holistic approach to testing,” she said.

More information on the MISD gifted program can be found at the district Web site: http://www.misd.k12.wa.us.

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