Better criteria for gifted programs can cut racial gaps

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Changing the way schools designate their students as “gifted” could address the gaps in racial and income representation in advanced education programs, according to a new study.

Adopting local norms is one relatively easy and cost-effective way to address this inequality, the study finds.

Comparing students across national standards, in which only the top 5 or 15% of test-takers qualify for gifted services, leads to disproportionate representation of Asian American and white students. But researchers found that the more localized gifted education standards were, the more racially representative the programs would be.

Gaps in who’s ‘gifted’

The research team looked at third graders’ test scores across ten states over ten years, changing the limit for what constitutes “gifted” and observing how it would change student demographics in gifted programs.

They began by comparing students across their entire ten-state population as if they were using a national standard, in which only the top 5 or 15% of all students qualified for gifted services. Then they stepped the geographic boundaries down to compare students by state, then by school-districts, then by individual schools, where the top 5% or 15% of every school would be eligible for gifted education services.

They found that the smaller the geographic comparison got, the more racially representative the gifted programs would be.

By their calculations, going from national averages to school-specific averages quadrupled African American representation, nearly tripled Hispanic representation, and consistently improved the likelihood for both demographics to be identified as gifted. But even with those massive improvements, the number of students identified as gifted was still not proportional to the actual number of African American and Hispanic students in the overall population.

The researchers say that comparing students on localized scales accounts for most economic and racial disparity across the country. Using national standards, one high-achieving and presumably wealthy school could have 50% of its students qualify as gifted, while a low-achieving school with less resources could have no gifted students.

With representation in higher education becoming more of a priority to colleges and institutions across the country—like the College Board, which announced a new Adversity Score last May—public elementary and high schools are reckoning with biases in their gifted learning programs.

The study also reflects the disparity in services provided to academically talented students compared to other special school populations. For example, a student with a learning disability could theoretically move from Alaska to Florida and receive the same recognition and treatment, thanks in part to federal regulations. But unlike special education services, there isn’t a single, federally-commissioned protocol to identify gifted students or provide them with appropriate resources. Policies are instead left to states, some of which, like North Carolina, will defer gifted education decisions to individual school districts.

There are many ways a state or school district can qualify students as gifted; it can depend on teacher recommendations, national test scores, IQ scores, GPA, or other variables. Then states or districts have to place standards on whichever method they use, varying from accepting only the top 3% of students to the top 25% of students.

Serving gifted kids

But it doesn’t have to come down to legislators or school boards deciding between local or national standards; in fact, many states accept a combination of standards, from national test scores to GPA to IQ results.

“It’s not an empirical science question of ‘what’s better or what’s worse,’ but what you want to achieve, who you want to serve, and how you want to serve them,” says Matthew Makel, director of research and evaluation at Duke University’s Talent Identification Program.

Which is why Sneha Shah-Coltrane, director of advanced learning and gifted education for the state of North Carolina, advocates for leaving policy decisions to individual school districts.

“Let’s say the average achievement level is a D in a particular school or even in a particular classroom,” explains Shah-Coltrane. “If you have a student who’s performing at a B level, they need different resources than their peers. If you take that student to a different district where the achievement is A-level, that student will then need a different type of support.”

Both Shah-Coltrane and Makel see variation across school districts as a strength and an opportunity for customization, but they also both see school standards as a solution to the national “excellence gap” currently separating Hispanic and black students from their Asian American and white peers.

Makel emphasizes that advanced education services aren’t about accolades or frivolity, but about ensuring resources to students who need them.

“Education should strive to teach students what they don’t already know,” Makel believes. “But too many gifted students are only being taught what they already know. We need to stop looking at gifted education as a reward and recognize that many students’ needs are not being met in a regular classroom. Adopting local norms is one way to ensure that more students receive the educational experiences they need to learn.”

Additional coauthors of the study are from Duke, the University of Wisconsin, West Virginia University, the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and Johns Hopkins University.

Source: Vanessa Moss for Duke University