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talented and gifted file photo

Eve Sidikman, a Van Hise fifth-grader, writes an answer on the board in her accelerated math class at Shorewood Elementary in this November 2010 file photo.

The Madison School District is under added pressure to improve how it identifies and educates talented and gifted students after state officials found its program does not comply with state law.

In revealing shortcomings in the district's offerings for talented and gifted (TAG) students, the Department of Public Instruction challenges the approach some schools, particularly West High School, have used in which all students learn together.

"The district is going to have to face (the question): 'How do they reconcile their policy of inclusion with honors classes?'?" said Carole Trone, director of the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth at UW-Madison. "If parents see the other districts are challenging their students more, they might send their students there."

Developing a comprehensive system to identify TAG students — including testing and staff training — can be expensive, Trone said. Moreover, districts that don't identify students from all socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds open themselves up to discrimination lawsuits, she said.

Superintendent Dan Nerad said it's unclear how much such a revamped program will cost.

Lacking state compliance

DPI conducted the investigation in response to a complaint filed in September by eight Madison parents. 

The department investigated concerns in four categories required of districts — having a TAG plan and coordinator, identifying eligible students, offering free programming and providing an opportunity for parental participation.

In all four areas the department found the district to be noncompliant.

"We're not quibbling with that assessment," Nerad said. "We understood that we had work to be done in the School District."

The district has until Monday to challenge DPI's assessment, which was issued March 24 but not made public until late last month. Nerad has recommended that the School Board not contest the findings.

Starting Monday, the district has 90 days to come up with a corrective plan and begin implementation, DPI spokesman Patrick Gasper said.

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The School Board approved an updated TAG plan in December, which indicates improvements are scheduled to be in place by June 2012. But the state found that plan was insufficient.

Nerad said the district is working on an updated timeline for revising and implementing the plan, along with associated costs, and will report to the School Board on May 23. It's possible changes could happen more quickly and in time for next school year, Nerad said.

Parents who filed the complaint were primarily concerned about West High not offering honors classes for 9th- and 10th-graders, something the district has said it will introduce next fall in English and history. The parents have said they believe high-achieving students are best served by grouping them together for advanced instruction.

The proposed changes, however, caused hundreds of West students to walk out in protest last fall.

'Good faith'

Vicki Bier, a West parent and one of the eight who filed the complaint, said parents were pleased the district has decided not to challenge the findings.

"It shows good faith on the part of district administration that they recognize there is room for improvement," Bier said. "The exact form of what the district's response will be will be crucial in determining how happy the TAG families will be with the outcome."

She said the district has three options: create special classes for gifted students, provide them special instruction within regular classes or offer more one-on-one instruction.

T.J. Mertz, a West parent and local education blogger, said the "biggest and stickiest" task for the district will be developing a method to identify TAG students. 

His concern is that socioeconomic and possibly racial segregation could become more pronounced if students are grouped based on how they perform on tests.

Under state law, students can be identified as gifted according to academic ability but also a wide range of other characteristics, including leadership, creativity and artistic ability.

Paul Bishop, the district's interim TAG coordinator, said the district has started testing second- and fifth-graders for the program and introduced a survey teachers can use to help determine if a student is gifted. 

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