Sally Meredith’s reading class looks different from most at Albert Cammon Middle School in St. Rose.

Meredith, an eighth-grade teacher at the school, doesn’t spend her fifth-period reading class helping her 13-year-old students through difficult passages or having them read aloud. Instead, she largely lets her students take charge in debates over questions she poses to the class, or else she leaves them alone to work on projects.

On this day, Meredith divided her nine students into two groups and asked each to play a part in mock negotiations over whether the NFL should continue to have its jerseys made in Vietnam.

Donielle White, an eighth-grader playing the role of a Vietnamese factory owner, demanded that her classmate Ian Carbo, playing the part of an American executive, agree to pay for factory upgrades.

“How do you expect such high-quality products from a developing country and are not willing to pay for it?” she asked.

Carbo countered that he would “just bring production back to America to lower shipping costs.”

Meredith’s class isn’t different just because of her instructional style. In this school, where black and Hispanic students make up nearly 65 percent of the student body, Meredith’s class looks more like the district as a whole — split about evenly between white and nonwhite students.

The eighth-graders are part of an experiment aimed at increasing the number of black and Hispanic students in gifted classrooms. Some students already have passed the gifted tests for St. Charles Parish Public Schools, but others are in Meredith’s class because teachers believe they have the potential to eventually pass the tests, if given enough nurturing and encouragement.

In 2012, when the U.S. Department of Education last estimated the demographics of gifted programs nationwide, Hispanic students were underrepresented by 36 percent and black students by 47 percent. It’s a situation that has prompted complaints and even lawsuits about discrimination, and it has driven districts around the country to experiment with ways to include more students of color in gifted education.

How the St. Charles district is identifying and singling out bright students may hold the answer for other places seeking to make gifted education more equitable.

The district began its efforts to improve minority participation in gifted programs in much the same way as many others, focusing on removing one of two potential roadblocks in the way of qualified minority students — biased teachers or biased tests.

In 2007, the St. Charles system began giving gifted screening tests to all second- and eighth-graders to avoid the possibility that teachers’ prejudices could influence who was considered for gifted classes. The change met with some success, but the district wasn’t satisfied.

Standardized tests required

Complaints about biased tests have plagued gifted programs for decades. But arguments about the efficacy of these tests are moot in Louisiana. State regulations require that districts rely on standardized tests when identifying gifted students.

To be labeled gifted in Louisiana, by and large, students must score at least two standard deviations above the mean on either a standardized reading and math test chosen by the district or on an intelligence test. (Two standard deviations above the mean translates to a score of 130 on the IQ test and is near the 98th percentile.)

The one exception is if students score between 1½ and two standard deviations above the mean on all three tests; then districts are advised to look at a student’s academic history for evidence of traits like problem-solving ability and creativity.

Despite this exception, the St. Charles district still had trouble getting students at some of its campuses into gifted programs. This doesn’t surprise Donna Ford, a professor in the special education department at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and an expert on diversity in gifted education.

Ford described Louisiana’s IQ cutoff score as “one of the highest” in the country. “I think those criteria are untenable if you really want to desegregate your gifted programs,” she said.

The Louisiana Department of Education did not respond to requests for a response to Ford’s assertion or comment on its gifted requirements.

Stuck with the state’s gifted testing requirement, the district turned to a controversial premise: that giftedness can be nurtured in the right students, even if they don’t pass the test on the first or even second try.

The experimental program, called Academic Academy, operates at the only four schools in the high-performing district in which white students are in the minority. In 2012, there were 13 gifted students at these four campuses, less than 1 percent of the student body — a number in stark contrast to the statewide average of about 4 percent.

Seeking a waiver

This presented a problem for the gifted program teachers at those schools.

“With one or two kids (in the gifted program), students didn’t have access to the kind of meaningful discussions and exploration we hope comes out of these classes,” said Lisa DeJean, the gifted and talented technical assistant for the district.

“We were trying to find more students, talking to the teachers about what to look for,” Cammon teacher Meredith said. “But the students teachers were recommending weren’t passing.”

The district decided to ask the state to waive the requirement that only students who met the test score cutoffs can be taught in gifted classrooms, in hopes this would give the gifted classrooms a critical mass of students and would increase the number and diversity of gifted students by exposing more students to the kind of thinking that the gifted tests attempt to measure.

Last year, the Academic Academy program invited 91 students in second through eighth grades — students who hadn’t made the requisite scores to be considered gifted — into the accelerated classrooms at the four schools. At the end of the year, the students were tested again for evidence of “giftedness.” Of the 91 students, six minority students and one white student attained the coveted status.

At last count, three of the four schools participating in the Academic Academy had increased the number of gifted students of color. On average, however, the schools continued to have a smaller percentage of gifted students than the state as a whole.

For that to change, said Ford, the Vanderbilt professor, more policies need to be amended.

“You need these kinds of talent development programs,” she said. “I like what they are trying to do, but the (test score) criteria is just set too high. That is what they need to be asking the state to waive.”

Many states and districts have backed away from the test-only approach used in Louisiana.

Alabama, for example, was forced to do so after the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights stepped in. Before that, students had to score at least 130 on an IQ test.

Local flexibility urged

Chester Finn Jr., president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank, understands why districts stick with the testing model.

“Imagine you are an administrator in an upper-middle-class school with a lot of demand for programs like these,” Finn said. “The tests give you something to point to when a parent calls asking why Johnny isn’t in one of these classes.”

But Finn added that local administrators should decide what approach to take for admitting students into accelerated programs. That way, districts like the one in St. Charles Parish could have alternative ways to evaluate students at schools that have a hard time filling their gifted programs. Louisiana is one of only eight states in which gifted requirements are set entirely by state regulations.

The St. Charles district is hoping that if high-potential students, particularly high-potential minority students, are exposed to the kinds of ideas and discussions that their more affluent peers get at home, they will be able to pass Louisiana’s mandated tests.

Meredith thinks the best ways to expose her students to that “different way of thinking” are through self-directed projects and class debates.

“There is a lot of opportunity to speak out, to use language,” Meredith said. “I want them to explore. I want them to be open-minded.”

While the program’s stated mission is to increase the number of gifted minority students in four schools, the folks at Cammon have a wider view of success.

“This program is working, even if a student is never identified,” DeJean said. “My hope is that they finish middle school more prepared for those honors classes in high school.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.