Pennsylvania is taking steps to make gifted education available to more students, but that has done little to quell long-standing tension between parents and school districts over how the state's brightest are educated.
The proposed changes on course to become final this summer make clear that districts must use more than an IQ score to identify gifted students - as most other states do.
The state sets a 130 IQ as the trigger for gifted education and allows districts to choose the other criteria, such as teacher recommendations and classroom work.
Just how much impact the clarification will have is uncertain. State officials had no estimate of how many more students would be identified or the potential cost to districts.
While most area school administrators interviewed said they already use more than an IQ score to evaluate students, education advocates disagree.
The tension between gifted-education advocates and public school districts exists across the country as districts grapple to raise the achievement of failing students, a requirement under the No Child Left Behind law.
"What do you do with a child who is ahead in a No Child Left Behind world?" asked Rose Jacobs, a member of the Bensalem School Board in Bucks County and the eastern region affiliate coordinator for the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education (PAGE), an advocacy group for parents and teachers of gifted students.
The regulation changes - developed with input from parent advocates - also require the state education department to set a schedule for auditing districts for compliance.
And they require that teachers are assigned fewer gifted students starting in 2010. The law reduces the allowable number from 75 students to 65 per teacher.
Officials from some area school districts say they will look at the new regulations as they refine their approach to gifted students.
In the Quakertown Community School District in Bucks County, about 4 percent of students are identified as gifted, said Superintendent Lisa Andrejko. The district tests students for giftedness if a parent requests it, or if an educator recommends it.
"We're looking to enhance our program next year. That number will probably be increased," she said.
North Penn School District in Montgomery County has a special committee looking at improvements that could be made in the gifted program, said Gary Otto, director of student services. Developing a better identification process is one goal. About 5 percent of the district's students are identified as gifted.
Philadelphia, the region's largest school system with about 167,000 students, about 4 percent of whom are identified as gifted, also recognizes that it especially needs to do more to identify its best and brightest minority students. While more than 62 percent of the district's students are African American, only 45 percent of its 6,499 gifted students are African American. Latino students also are underrepresented.
Still, Cassandra W. Jones, interim chief academic officer, said the district already uses multiple criteria to identify gifted students.
"We have to look at the total child," she said. "There are a lot of other factors besides IQ."
Cheltenham Township's school district, which has 13 percent gifted students, has begun screening all students in second, third and fourth grades. Previously, the Montgomery County district had relied on referrals.
"There are probably students with great potential out there that we're missing. This is a way to try and seek them out at an early age and provide them with the support they need to reach their potential," said Jane Best, supervisor of gifted education.
Cheltenham will give the 1,000 students a test, and those who score well will be further evaluated with parental permission, Best said. Classroom grades and teacher recommendations also will be considered.
Some parents are skeptical that the new rules will help their children.
"There's neither a carrot nor a stick for a district to comply," said Joe Brouch, a parent in the North Penn district. "It's up to the parents to file legal action."
The law has no provision to cover legal fees for parents even if they win. And, no on-site monitoring is required to see if programs are meeting student needs, parents complain.
"They look at paper compliance, not appropriateness of programs," said Felicia Hurewitz, a Haverford Township School District parent and board member with Pennsylvanians for the Education of Gifted Students, another advocacy group.
Failing to educate gifted students correctly could be just as detrimental as allowing scores of children to fail, said Hurewitz, an assistant professor of psychology at Drexel University.
"The best and brightest are so frustrated by the slow pace of education that they're going to give up on the process before they reach their potential," she said.
But national experts say it's encouraging that Pennsylvania took on changes in gifted education at a time when so many states are focused on meeting federal targets.
The federal government doesn't require that gifted students be identified or served, leaving that decision to the states.
"It's nice to know there's a big state that has this on the radar screen," said Jane Clarenbach, director of public education for the National Association for Gifted Children.
The association estimates that 6 percent of the student population in the United States should be identified as academically "gifted," but only 50 to 70 percent of them receive services.
In Pennsylvania, 71,830 students were identified as gifted in 2005-06, the most recent year for which data was available. That's about 3.9 percent of school-age students in public schools.
New Jersey doesn't require districts to track numbers of gifted students. The state also does not set a qualifying IQ score and leaves it up to districts to define "gifted" and develop programs.
As a result, districts reported a wide range in their percent of gifted students in The Inquirer's Report Card on the Schools. The highest was the 35 percent reported by the 2,058-student Kingsway Regional in Gloucester County, which counts all students in honors and advanced placement courses.
In both states, school districts use a variety of approaches to deliver gifted services. Some pull students out of regular classes into small groups. Some send additional instructors into classrooms or teach a "parallel curriculum" in which gifted students are taught a deeper level of the same course matter. In high school, much instruction is done in separate courses, such as advanced placement.
Not identifying a student can deny them an adequate education, parents say.
Adelle Bergman of Lansdale won court rulings directing the North Penn district to help her son, 13, now a ninth grader at Pennfield Middle School. The boy, who was identified as gifted in first grade, has not gotten the support the parents say he needs to excel.
"They're putting him in a harder class, but he's not really getting the full educational experience that he's entitled to," she said.
Otto, North Penn's student services director, declined comment on specific cases.
"We're constantly trying to offer as much as we can to all kids," he said.
Emily Leader, deputy chief counsel of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said school districts comply with the law when providing gifted education, but that doesn't equate with "the absolutely best thing we could possibly do. We wish we had the money and the resources to do that."