In this undated photo, a teacher works with young students in a classroom.

The state auditor’s office is calling for changes to Georgia’s gifted education program.

Credit: GPB / File

Georgia’s program for gifted students has problems with too-large class sizes, teacher training and student selection, a new report from the state auditor’s office finds.

In the 2020-2021 school year, about 199,000 Georgia students were designated as gifted, representing about 12% of the 1.7 million statewide student body. The state Department of Education says these students need “special instruction and/or special ancillary services to achieve at levels commensurate with his or her ability(ies).”

To help make sure they get that instruction, the state spends between 30% and 68% more on each gifted student based on Georgia’s Quality Basic Education formula for per-student spending. That makes the gifted program the largest non-general education program funded according to the formula.


Class sizes and instruction methods

Gifted funding is based on a ratio of 12 students per teacher, but the auditors found more than 77% of gifted classes across the state exceeded 12 students, and gifted classes averaged 23 students per teacher. That means that the state is paying a higher rate for gifted students but may not be reaping the intended benefits of more individual instruction for gifted students, the auditors found.

Gifted coordinators told auditors that a lack of resources can lead to larger classes.

The auditors found that this issue was exacerbated in larger school systems  Georgia’s 36 school systems with more than 10,000 students had an average of 23 gifted students per teacher, while 11 systems with less than 1,000 students had an average of 12 students per teacher.

The auditors recommended that the General Assembly should consider tweaking funding for gifted students in discussions about altering QBE, and the state Department of Education should periodically review gifted class sizes.

The DOE agreed with these findings but added “Georgia is a local control state, which allows school districts to choose which gifted service delivery model(s) best serve the students in the various grade bands. For all QBE categories, school districts earn funding based on a formula but are afforded flexibility per state law.”

The DOE also noted that the 1:12 ratio is the formula for funding, not a limit, and that local districts can waive class sizes under state law.

But different methods of teaching may prevent gifted students from receiving individualized attention, the auditors found.

The DOE allows eight models for gifted instruction, including resource classes, in which students are pulled out of classes one day a week for a class that can only include gifted students. Seventy percent of Georgia gifted elementary students have at least one resource class.

Other methods include cluster grouping, in which six to eight gifted students are placed in an otherwise general education classroom led by a teacher with a gifted endorsement who provides different lesson plans for both groups, and collaborative teaching, which is similar to cluster grouping, but the classroom is led by a teacher without gifted certification who is assisted in lesson planning by a teacher with certification.

Statewide, 40% of gifted elementary school students were enrolled in a class with cluster grouping and 12% had at least one collaborative teaching class.

The National Association for Gifted Children says gifted students should receive differentiated instruction — lessons that give them the opportunity to be challenged and grow their skills — and general education services should not replace differentiated instruction provided by models like the resource class.

“Cluster and Collaborative models, however, are at higher risk of lacking differentiation because students may have a broad array of skills in the same classroom,” the auditors found.

The education department disagreed with the audit’s recommendations to review class data and work with districts to ensure differentiation, noting that “Georgia is a local control state, which allows school districts to choose which gifted service delivery model(s) best serve the students in the various grade bands.”


Teacher training

The education department requires gifted classes to be led by teachers with gifted in-field endorsements, certificates which typically require nine to 12 hours of college credits, equaling about 200 hours of coursework, which can be expensive and time-consuming for working teachers.

The courses and field work are designed to allow teachers to nurture students’ talents and provide them with appropriately challenging work, but auditors found 7,500 of 76,000 gifted classes in the 2020-2021 school year were taught by teachers without an endorsement.

The auditors found that rural districts were more likely to have higher percentages of teachers without the endorsement, but there were also other outliers, including one suburban system in which 805 classes, half of the total gifted classes, were taught by teachers without a record of an endorsement. Only 34 systems, or about 20%, had all gifted classes taught by an endorsed teacher.

That means the state may have overpaid up to $9.7 million to gifted classes without a certified gifted teacher, the auditors estimated.

The auditors also found that about 3,800 students, about 2% of children in gifted classes, were not identified as eligible for the program and that the state may have paid an additional $3.6 million for gifted classes for ineligible students.

The education department partially agreed with the auditors’ recommendations to handle these discrepancies and said new policies are already in place starting this school year, but they noted that most of the data was collected during a time when the pandemic was at its height, which limited opportunities to attain endorsements.


Student selection and instruction

The auditors also found fault with schools’ processes for selecting students.

One problem they listed was that the DOE does not require screening all students for gifted status, which they said may cause students to miss out, especially those in disadvantaged groups.

Students can be referred by teachers, counselors or others with knowledge of their academic abilities, or they can be automatically referred if they score high on standardized tests. Referred students are reviewed by a panel, and, if approved, can be enrolled subject to parental approval.

But eligibility declines as poverty levels increase, the researchers found, and Asian and white students are overrepresented in gifted programs compared with members of other races, both in Georgia and nationally. The researchers noted that most school systems do provide universal screening, but that it is not required as it is in other states.

The National Association for Gifted Children recommends universal screening as well as steps including training for general education teachers to recognize gifted students early and providing information to parents in multiple languages.

The education department partially agreed with the auditors’ recommendations, saying it would be willing to incorporate universal screening guidance into its best practices if it were “added in state law and with additional appropriated state funding.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder

Tags: Georgia  Education  students