Washington schools must now screen every elementary student for advanced education services, thanks to a law passed in May, which will better ensure equitable identification and access. To learn more about the history of this legislation, the efforts of its advocates, what it will mean for Washington children, and what lessons it may hold for lawmakers and organization in other states, I interviewed Austina De Bonte, President of the Washington Coalition for Gifted Education, whose efforts were integral to this noteworthy achievement.
De Bonte has been involved in gifted advocacy in Washington State for more than decade, beginning when she founded a parent advocacy group in her local district, the Northshore HiCap Parents Council. She’s also past president of NW Gifted Child Association and advisor to The G Word documentary.
Thanks for speaking with me, Austina. Washington just passed a law that makes gifted education more equitable and improves identification of gifted students by mandating that schools screen every child—a practice commonly known as universal screening. Will you explain why the law is so important and what it changes in the state?
This new law is a big deal. It requires all districts in the state to universally screen all students in a grade level for eligibility for Highly Capable programs. This must be done once in or before second grade and again in or before sixth grade. Universal screening may use existing test scores, but districts must gather at least two objective data points for each student. By prior state law, no single datapoint can disqualify a student. Furthermore, subjective datapoints, such as report card grades or teacher recommendations, can only be used to support a student’s qualification, never to disqualify. Any testing must happen during the regular school day (with exceptions for special situations allowed with parent permission).
Another feature of our new law is that many districts may not need to administer a new test if they already have sufficient recent scores on file for students, such as from SBA, iReady, STAR, MAP, etc. This makes the law so much more implementable in districts, with lower cost and logistical considerations, and is aligned with the latest research that really shows there is no benefit to using cognitive testing over achievement testing to identify students. Neither approach is perfect, actually, but what’s more important is that it’s done universally so every student is given the opportunity. Once you combine that universal opportunity with local norms, that’s when the real magic happens. A referral process must also remain available for students in grade levels that are not universally screened.
Additionally, the state must now publicly report the enrollment of each school district’s Highly Capable program, broken down by all the demographic categories that are tracked by the state. This will create much more visibility and accountability for districts to get serious about ensuring equitable access to Highly Capable programs for historically underrepresented groups, such as low-income students, multilingual students, students with disabilities (twice exceptional), highly mobile students, etc. Also the new law specifically mentions that districts may identify more than 5 percent of their student population; this was a frequent misunderstanding that has now been explicitly clarified.
How did this law come to be passed (i.e., what was behind proponents’ success)? And what role did the Washington Coalition for Gifted Education play?
Getting this law passed was a long, multi-year process. There were several prior attempts, with universal screening showing up in proposed bills as early as 2016. There were many years of committee hearings and legislator meetings to build awareness of this issue, to fine tune our messaging, and to work the bill through the many steps of the legislative process.
We really began to make more progress when the Coalition reorganized itself and its practices in 2021. We created regular meetings, had more open communication, welcomed some new board members, and acted more as a team. We also began building relationships with other—larger—organizations that have a lot more influence with the legislature than we do. All of this helped us become more proactive in anticipating how the legislature would respond to our efforts, and it has paid large dividends.
Getting other stakeholder groups aligned also turned out to be essential, especially the state teacher association, the state school board directors association, and the state parent teacher association. Despite some heartbreaking failures in prior years where it really felt like certain legislators might never come around in their thinking, ultimately the bill passed unanimously with full bipartisan support in every single committee vote, as well as on both the House and Senate floor, which was really remarkable.
One of the most important aspects of our advocacy was getting clear that the focus of this bill was fixing the very real and, in most communities, very visible equity problems in Highly Capable programs statewide. Owning that problem and coming in with real solutions that had been successfully piloted in numerous districts across the state was a big part of our successful messaging. This was a problem everyone could get behind fixing. Even if someone didn’t love the idea of Highly Capable programs, they could still get behind fixing the inequities.
You told me that rulemaking for the law is still ongoing. What’s at stake? What are the challenges? And again, how is the coalition planning to be involved?
The law passed by the legislature shows up in the Revised Code of Washington as it was written in the bill. However, every law has corresponding language in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) that gives more detailed instructions on how that law is to be implemented and interpreted. In this case, that’s in the purview of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Modifying the existing WAC is a separate journey of working with stakeholders, drafting changes, and a months-long public comment process.
This is really only now getting underway in earnest, with OSPI engaging the state advisory board on Highly Capable programs and other stakeholders in providing suggestions and feedback that will ultimately be reflected in a first draft of proposed WAC changes sometime in the coming months. The Coalition gathered about twenty pages of feedback and suggestions over the summer that have already been fed into that process, but there are many other stakeholders, as well. The WAC will likely introduce several important nuances into the implementation of the law that will serve to strengthen the safeguards for equity, as well as provide a stronger advanced-education system for Highly Capable students statewide. The Washington Association for Educators of the Talented and Gifted just held its annual conference, and a major theme running through it was implementation of universal screening and local norms. This was really great to see.
The reality is that most districts are still working on getting into compliance with the new law. Although technically that law went into effect in July 2023, until the WAC is finalized, there will likely be some grace for districts to get into full compliance. Nothing happens quickly, sadly, but the train is moving in the right direction.
What advice would you give to other state-level advocates hoping to get similar bills passed in their legislatures? What are some of the keys to success for state-level advocacy for gifted students?
Patience was perhaps the hardest for our team of advocates. Our first failed bills failed largely because they bit off too much of the apple. Asking for universal screening, mandatory professional development, transportation, and a few other things all at the same time was too much to explain and to justify, and the price tag was too high. We found it really hard to set aside professional development in favor of focusing on equity through universal screening, but that was necessary to get to a tight, clear message that everyone could get behind, and that we could realistically get passed in the legislature.
We did have a partial success in 2017 and 2018 when a few important provisions did make it through the legislative process. These included prioritizing identification of low-income students, the use of local norms, not allowing a single data point to disqualify a student, requiring multiple pathways for qualification, and requiring nonverbal assessments when an assessment in the student’s native language is not available. It also included a provision that has turned out to be extremely impactful—which was stipulating that subjective measures such as teacher recommendations or report card grades can only be used as supportive data points, never to disqualify or screen a student out from further consideration. All of these provisions have become even more important now that universal screening has come into play with this year’s legislation, but they did have some positive impacts on their own.
It was also really important for advocates to get our arguments organized, and line up the research base, the local examples, and the hard numbers so that advocates were all using the same playbook and had rich talking points at their fingertips. Building a few one-pagers that could be shared as follow-up after a legislator meeting was a strong practice that I think really helped. You can see our three one-pagers, plus one created in collaboration with WA State PTA, on our website.
What’s next on the horizon in this work for you and for the coalition?
Our next advocacy priority is professional development. Despite the fact that Highly Capable programming has been a mandatory part of basic education in Washington State since 2014, there is zero requirement for any teacher or administrator to have any training in gifted education. Our regular pre-service teacher preparation programs don’t cover the topic, and while there is a gifted endorsement possible through Whitworth University, there’s not really any benefit to teachers for having that credential, so very few have sought it out. Neither is there any requirement for in-service education on Highly Capable programming, not even if a teacher is working in a self-contained Highly Capable program. So that is a big gap in our state right now, and impacts everything from the fidelity of program design at the administration level to the quality of advanced instruction being offered to students and to teachers’ awareness and support for students’ unique social and emotional needs.
Getting this done will require a tremendous amount of coalition building across multiple stakeholders to agree on a plan and, crucially, to allocate funding. That is bound to be a constraint. There are so many questions yet to answer. In the face of limited funds, do we, for example, focus professional learning on teachers, counselors, principals, or program administrators? Is it more important for all teachers to get a few hours of awareness training or for a few specialists to go deep? Is it more important to have robust pre-service training, or should we focus on in-service approaches? Ideally, of course, we would want it all, but that probably won’t be realistic. Models like those in Ohio and Texas that require a certain number of hours of continuing education for different types of teachers and administrators seem like a promising direction to consider, but it’s early days. We still have a lot of coalition building to do.