When teachers told Cosette Nickles a decade ago that her son didn't belong in gifted-and-talented math because he didn't do extra work, she didn't push it -- even though the Perry Hall mother suspected the school was wrong.
But when her youngest child wasn't flagged for the program several years later, Nickles appealed the decision, and won. She had learned from her son's experience that if her daughter wasn't doing algebra in middle school with the higher-level students, she might not make it to advanced-placement calculus in high school.
"It's like, OK, if she's not going to get in it now, she's never going to get in it," Nickles said.
When Nickles and many of today's parents were growing up, schools often determined the work students would do with "tracking," a rigid system of instructional grouping that has since fallen out of favor.
Though nonjudgmental titles like the "Red Birds" and "Blue Birds" tried to hide it, students usually knew when they opened their class schedules whether they'd been placed with the smart group, the average kids or the low achievers for the year. Research found that the system often segregated students by race, and condemned students who were struggling to a permanent place at the bottom.
But while many schools now say they mix students, offering a more challenging curriculum to all, grouping by ability still exists. And parents say it's harder than ever to figure out.
Grouping practices vary from school to school, and a child may change groups by subject and even by the month. With more students being diagnosed with ADHD, school systems trying to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act and colleges expecting more students to take AP (advanced-placement) classes, grouping decisions have gotten even more complicated. And teachers often don't talk explicitly about how they group their students.
"They don't advertise it by any means," said Maria Sousa of Columbia, who has had children in both public and private schools. "One must probe."
In a 2000 survey of Maryland public high schools, researchers at Johns Hopkins University's Center for the Social Organization of Schools found that 87 percent of those responding used ability grouping in at least some core subjects in ninth grade. Schools with relatively low poverty and few minorities were mostly likely to use groups.
In some schools, mixing students of varied abilities has drawn parental opposition.
"In this issue in particular, the parents of the high-achieving children tend to be more vocal," said Robert Slavin, a principal research scientist at Hopkins who has studied the issue. "Ideally, you would want a rigorous curriculum with adequate supports for anybody who can't keep up. In the real world, that may not be what happens, so people kind of have to scramble to get the best for their child."
As schools seek to broaden opportunities and parents look for ways for their kids to get ahead, the ranks of gifted and talented programs in some areas have grown. Schools have expanded their criteria for such work beyond intelligence testing to include a variety of factors, from teachers' examination of the student's work habits to parent comments.
In Baltimore County public schools, gifted-and-talented enrollment in grades 3 through 5 grew from 13.5 percent in 2000 to nearly 20 percent this year. More than 30 percent of middle-schoolers in the Howard County School District now take gifted-and-talented math.
"The old idea is that giftedness is like eye color or an extra chromosome -- you've got it or you don't got it," said Joseph Renzulli, a professor of education at the University of Connecticut who directs the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
Kathy Oliver, an assistant state superintendent of education, said that's a sign that schools are getting better at recognizing each child's strengths. "I think expanding the number of gifted and talented students is exactly where we should be going," she said.
Given that, some parents worry that if their kids are in "regular" classes or groups, they'll be left behind. "Every parent knows that if you want your kid to get ahead, you ask the principals to put your kid in GT or honors," said Sousa.
Jeanne Paynter, specialist for gifted and talented education at the Maryland Department of Education, said that isn't necessarily true. But she says parents of middle-schoolers should plan their children's courses with an eye toward where they'll be later. "We do recommend the student be in the most challenging course he or she is capable of," she said.
The emphasis on AP work is leading the state to encourage middle schools to align their curricula with the new demands of high school.