05/18/2010 01:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Color Is Your Folder?

"Jennifer, is Kellen gifted?" The question comes from my son's eight year-old buddy Alan* (*not his real name), who is sitting next to him in the back seat.

I turn to face the two boys. "Of course he's gifted. Just like you."

"No," says Alan, correcting me with a shake of the head. "I'm not gifted. I don't have the orange folder." Kellen, uncomfortable, looks out the window. He knows exactly what Alan is talking about. So do I.

If you haven't heard of the orange folder, you either don't have school-age children, or the ones you do have aren't in an LAUSD public school. The "orange folder" is a euphemism for a child who has been identified as "gifted" in the LAUSD funded GATE program (Gifted and Talented Education).

Rumors abound as to how children can get "flagged" for GATE testing at their school... some say a child need only ask certain "magic questions" which will alert the teacher that he may be intellectually gifted; others insist that parents can -- and do -- work the system to get their child identified into what some feel is an elitist program.

The truth is that a child may be flagged by a teacher, or automatically receive GATE status with two to three years of advanced scores on those standardized tests our kids are subjected to each May. The idea behind the program is great: "...that students have learning opportunities that help develop their abilities to the highest level."

What isn't great is the abstract way in which kids are chosen to take the assessment -- and how it affects the self-esteem of those who are not.

You see, the test isn't given to every student. It costs the district money (the exact cost varies with each child); and we all know how scarce that is. Savvy parents may begin pestering their child's teachers as early as kindergarten, pointing out his or her intellectual virtues in hopes of nabbing a test. They might even insist upon a school psychologist evaluation, begging the question, "can parents manipulate the system to get their child identified?" "People can manipulate anything," conceded LaRoyce Bell, District Coordinator for LAUSD GATE, in a telephone interview. "But in the end, there has to be evidence."

With such a random "flagging" system, are some students slipping through the cracks? Absolutely. According to Bell, "We know there are brilliant kids we are missing because we don't have the right assessments for every child, but we're trying."

Trying indeed. There are six categories in which a child can be identified: Intellectual Ability, Creative Ability, Performing Arts, High Achievement Ability, Visual, and Specific Academic. Bell, who once worked in special education, has worked tirelessly in an effort to help as many children as possible get an individualized program that can help them succeed.

Unfortunately, the children who aren't identified often get stuck with a less challenging curriculum, often with the "general population" of the school. They may not be geniuses, but they aren't stupid. One can't help but wonder if Einstein would have been "flagged" for testing.

The GATE mission also states, "...all students are to receive an education appropriate to their individual capabilities, interests, and needs." "All students?" What about the children who aren't flagged as gifted? Where is their "individualized program?"

You might think that gifted status is about a parent's ego, and that's true to some extent. It's fabulous to think that your little mini-me is a prodigy, but there's more. A student with gifted status in an LAUSD elementary school will have a better chance at being accepted into a "smaller learning community" within a public middle school, while the average child is forced to learn in larger class sizes, thus helping him to remain... well, average. With recent budget cuts, it's getting worse. Some classes are expected to increase to over 40 children - and that's just in the academic classes such as Math and English. Dance and PE classes already have as many as 90 students.

But soaring class sizes and a less specialized education are just a few of the drawbacks of not getting that coveted orange folder. Worse still, it can be devastating to a child's self-esteem.

The orange folder is openly discussed by parents and children, making it a sensitive topic for some. Alan was asked outright by a classmate if he had it, and was advised that he was "not gifted/smart" when he confessed that he didn't. Many excellent students -- even those making straight A's -- get the sense that they are failing somehow, without the gifted label. What they don't know is that some of their "gifted" friends may actually be struggling; a child never loses GATE status, regardless of his or her grades.

What it comes down to is this. Even though the GATE program is an attempt to be equitable to a certain group of children, it still isn't equitable to all. Those who can afford it can always send their kids to private school. But for everyone else, unless your child is a genius -- or you can figure out how to work the system -- your options are few.

Every child is gifted in his or her own way, and all children deserve a good education. So enough with the budget cuts to our public schools. Let's at least give them a chance.