Unequal access to gifted-and-talented education is a national disgrace

New York Daily News Opinions 2 months ago

Mayor de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group has proposed phasing out New York City’s elementary gifted programs. The group’s recommendation takes aim at school segregation, which it says is encouraged by unequal access to gifted programs for students from different backgrounds.

The group’s proposed solution is a radical one, but the problem of inequitable access to gifted services by race and class is undeniable. As research I have conducted using nationally representative data shows, this problem reaches far beyond New York. Put simply, our system of identification of gifted students unjustly denies services to many high-ability low-income students and students of color. And it’s quite possible that New York’s system, which screens children as young as age 4 using a single test, is less equitable than those in other cities and states, which use multiple measures and admit children later.

To investigate access to gifted services, my research makes use of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), a rich data set collected by the National Center for Education Statistics. ECLS has followed multiple cohorts of randomly selected kindergartners from school entry through their elementary years. At each data collection point, ECLS collects rich information about the students from their parents and teachers, including whether they are receiving gifted services.

In a 2016 study, my coauthor and I examined racial and ethnic disparities in which public school students were assigned to gifted programs. As in other data sets, black and Hispanic students in the ECLS were much less likely to be assigned than white and Asian students.

An important feature of the ECLS data is that students are given a math and reading test each time data are collected. We found that comparing students with similar scores on these tests statistically eliminated gaps in gifted assignment between Hispanic and white students. Yet even in this comparison, and even after taking into account a variety of other home and school factors, black students were much less likely to be assigned. Just among very high-scoring students, black students lagged far behind their white peers in access to gifted services.

In a follow-up study, just out in the Harvard Educational Review, we returned to the ECLS data, this time to look at differences in gifted program participation by family socioeconomic status (SES). ECLS measures SES using an index of family income, parental education and the status of parents’ occupations (which are all highly correlated).

Differences in access to gifted programs across family SES are shockingly large. Students from families in the top 20% of the SES measure are nearly seven times more likely to receive gifted services than students in the bottom 20%. This gap is only partially explained by differences in achievement and other factors, like location.

Even when we compare students who score highly on the ECLS math and reading tests who attend the same schools, we show that students from the lowest-SES group are only half as likely to receive gifted services as students in the highest-SES group.

Why do we see this consistent denial of access to black and low-income students? It is hard to know for sure, though biases both in gifted evaluation processes and in who can access those processes are possible. In the 2016 study, one piece of evidence pointed toward the latter explanation. Gaps in assignment for high-ability Black students closed when they were taught by a Black teacher, suggesting the trouble may lie in the teacher referrals that begin many gifted identification processes. Biases in gifted assessments may well be swamped by biases in who takes — or is allowed to take — those assessments.

Gifted programs are supposed to support especially capable students in developing their intellectual and creative talents, which research suggests often does not happen in regular classrooms. Our systematic denial of those supports to low-income students and students of color is a national disgrace.

Eliminating gifted programs altogether denies services to all students, a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Other school systems have seen success with alternatives: universal screening for giftedness, taking a hard look at testing bias, allowing score cutoffs to vary geographically to reflect differences in opportunity for students in different parts of the city.

The advisory group’s elimination proposal is extreme. But at least it has sparked a conversation about gross inequities in New York’s system for providing services to gifted students — a conversation that many, many more school districts across the country need to have.

Grissom is associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

Tags: Opinion

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