Jonathan Plucker: Addressing Excellence Gaps – Using Local Norms

Jonathan A. Plucker

Originally published in the June/July 2020 issue of AC&E/Equity & Access

In the previous issue, we discussed using universal screening to identify students in need of advanced learning opportunities. This form of talent identification looks at data for all students rather than rely on parent or teacher nominations to identify students in need of further screening.

The research strongly suggests universal screening is considerably more equitable than nomination-first approaches to talent development, in the sense that low-income students with evidence of high ability are considerably more likely to be identified via universal screening.

However, universal screening alone is not a panacea for inequitable talent identification systems.

My colleagues and I believe it is much more effective when paired with the use of local norms. Using local norms – this usually means identifying the most talented students in each school versus those who are most talented according to national, state, or district-wide standards – is more controversial than universal screening, but it is difficult to imagine an equitable system of gifted education that doesn’t use local norms in some way, shape, or form.

In general, districts do not use local norms, preferring district or national norms. It’s usually helpful to describe local norms through real-world examples, such as how the University of Texas at Austin approaches admissions. If using national norms, the university would look for students with a minimum SAT or ACT score (or some other data sources) at, say, the 90th percentile. But UT-Austin uses local norms: Any student in a Texas high school finishing in the top 10% of their graduating class is automatically admitted to UT.

People often raise a number of serious concerns about identifying/admitting students via local norms, such as students being unprepared to succeed or academic standards having to be watered down. But in studies of top-tier universities using local norms for admissions, these concerns appear to be largely unfounded.

In addition, I often hear superintendents or state department of education leaders voice concern about student relocation: If a student is identified for advanced learning via local norms in a low-income area, that student may move to an upper-income district and find themselves behind students identified using national norms or higher local norms in the new district. However, these concerns feel overblown. Sure, low-income students tend to move quite often, but they rarely move into upper-income neighborhoods and districts (I’d love to live in a country with that much social mobility, but that’s not been the case in the U.S. for decades).

In my mind, the question is simple:

Do more students benefit from the use of local norms than would be inconvenienced by local-norms students, for lack of a better term, moving into higher-norm districts? I don’t have a precise answer to that question, but I suspect the answer is yes, and probably by a thousand-fold if not more.

Although we need more research on the use of local norms to identify gifted students at the K-12 level, the limited experimental evidence suggests students identified using local norms tend to catch up to peers identified with national or district norms within 2-3 years. This finding is surprising, but it makes sense if you believe these under-identified students are not reaching their full potential due to lack of opportunity and lack of support. If you find them early and provide them with rigorous and challenging learning opportunities, low-income or otherwise disadvantaged bright students can catch up to their more advantaged peers fairly quickly.

My colleagues and I recently conducted a national study on the various approaches to norming in gifted identification. We found that the use of local (building) norms significantly increased equity in identified gifted students. Interestingly, we also found that the use of national AND local norms at the same time helped identify the most diverse pool of students; but such an approach involves expanding services. At the very least, school districts seeking to identify advanced students should have a discussion about whether  building-level norms approach – in combination with a district-level norms mechanism – would be workable in their local context.

Of course, universal screening with local norms isn’t magic.

If you have similar demographics across all of your schools, or your district is primarily upper-middle-class and white, local norms will produce a talent pool that looks very similar to using other norms. And even if local norms does improve the representation in your programs, providing high quality programs remains important (i.e., students are being identified for something, and that something should be rigorous educational programming). In future columns, we will start shifting our focus from identification (who is ready for advanced programming?) to the program itself (how do we design equitable advanced learning experiences?).

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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