As schools across the country prepare their students for annual grade-level testing under the No Child Left Behind Act, thousands of bright seventh- and eighth-graders are getting ready to take on a greater challenge this Saturday: the SAT college entrance exam.
Since 1972, when Professor Julian Stanley of Johns Hopkins University first gave high-achieving middle schoolers college entrance exams to find exceptional potential, more than 1 million children have participated in these "talent searches" run by universities such as Northwestern, Denver and Duke. Although all search participants must score above the 95th percentile on their grade-level tests, some will score only the bare minimum on the SAT. Others will have near-perfect results.
These scores will help schools determine which students need more advanced work than they may be getting in class. At least, that's the idea. Talent searches work best as a compact between students, the search program and the school. We will identify profound talent, the programs say. Then the program and the school together will nurture it.
But talent searches have failed to keep their promise. The SAT can identify talent, but because most middle schools do nothing with high SAT scores, the promised nurturing tends to take place during summer camps run by the search programs themselves. Such programs are lifesavers -- for those who can afford them. But until every district has a school where the brightest are challenged in an environment with their intellectual peers, America can't claim it's leaving no child behind.
With all of the talk of failing schools these days, few consider that schools can shortchange their highest scorers, too. When I recently asked several former talent-search participants who scored more than 1,000 on the SAT what their schools did with their scores, most seemed puzzled by the question. A typical response: "What could they do? I was already in honors math." These bright students expected to be horribly bored, even in courses aimed at the top quarter of the class.
Their schools, flaunting honors English and maybe seventh-grade pre-algebra, were also blase about providing more. Stephen Shueh did well enough on the SAT as a seventh-grader to be able to cover algebra and geometry during a talent-search program he took the next summer. He came back to eighth grade -- and went right back into algebra class.
"Some people may have argued more," he says. "But the school made you jump through hoops, and there was no class past algebra in the middle school."
Talent-search programs have fought this attitude for years.
The problem, according to Paula Olszewski-Kubilius of Northwestern's Center for Talent Development, is that "it's still, unfortunately, viewed as something a kid does on her own."
Susan Assouline of the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa agrees.
"Julian Stanley saw this from the beginning," she says of the program's initiator. "There have been very slight changes. Now it's no longer phenomenally radical to take algebra in eighth grade."
But that won't satisfy kids capable of more. I asked Olszewski-Kubilius about a hypothetical seventh-grader who scores a 650 on the SAT math section.
"That means intellectually she's functioning at a college level and college level for a pretty bright student," she says. "She's ready for an accelerated course of study. She doesn't need to spend nine months doing algebra."
But she probably will. And she'll spend years in middle school English classes, even honors classes, reading young-adult books and writing five-paragraph essays that bore her to tears.
Blend this with middle school social scenes that don't value smarts and no wonder talent searches' summer programs seem like heaven. At universities across the country, students zoom through courses such as geometry, computer science and literature, covering a whole year's curriculum in three weeks. They revel in bouncing ideas off classmates who don't think they're freaks for liking to learn. Liz Baker, who helped teach a drama/writing class in a program at Stanford, says her students "were like camels who find a lake in the desert -- drinking up all the water they could in the short time they had."
These watering spots aren't cheap. Northwestern's program, for instance, costs $2,200 a session. So most of the students participating hail from the upper middle class. Kids from less-privileged backgrounds, who need the experience most, usually don't get it.
For these students' sake, every school district that promises a free and appropriate education needs to replicate these heady intellectual environments -- during the school year.
Mike Klibaner found classes at his Staten Island, N.Y., middle school underwhelming. He, too, escaped his boredom for a few weeks in the summer with a class at Franklin & Marshall College.
But because Klibaner lived in New York, he could apply to one of the city's prize-winning magnet high schools -- in his case, Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant's entrance exam, like a talent search, identifies New York's brightest from a sea of high achievers. Then Stuyvesant helps these students learn all they can absorb in one of the country's most challenging high schools.
"Everything changed there because I was no longer an outcast among the general student body," Klibaner says. To stretch his mind while surrounded by students who loved to learn, Klibaner was willing to travel almost two hours daily, each way.
Fulfilling the promise of talent searches means every district needs a Stuyvesant and a middle-school equivalent. Smaller districts can combine to provide a critical mass of gifted students for these schools -- like Klibaner, the kids will travel. More isolated districts can still create magnet programs to concentrate the brightest, give them teachers trained to aim two-to-three grade levels higher and adjust the curriculum to challenge students who need more.
A dozen states fund residential gifted high schools, usually only for juniors and seniors. All states should have these schools, and they should serve more than just two grades.
These solutions aren't terribly expensive. Magnet schools cost just a bit more for transportation, and residential schools cost no more than what states spend per child on special education. Gifted children have special needs, too.
But because some people find such programs elitist, most districts do not provide them and do little with talent searches beyond congratulating the high scorer.
After all, a seventh-grader who can't read seems more of a crisis than a seventh-grader whose mind is shutting down from learning fractions again.
Still, leaving no child behind doesn't require squelching those who want to surge ahead. Talent searches can find these children. Ignoring their gifts denies them the education they deserve.
New York-based writer Laura Vanderkam is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.
Permission to reprint this article was granted by the author, Laura Vanderkam.
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