How Do You Select the Worthiest Kids for Gifted and Talented Programs? Nobody Knows. 

Are gifted and talented programs yet another form of segregation?

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Do gifted and talented programs work, or do they simply perpetuate the advantages that certain classes of students—the white and Asian, the wealthy, the progeny of educated parents—already possess? This is an ongoing debate in K–12 circles, where methods of identifying the gifted and talented, and making the programs as inclusive as possible, are constantly being revised.

Where I live, in D.C., the solution is more often than not to do nothing, to focus on bringing kids up to grade level rather than attempt to meet the very different needs of those who are well beyond it. An excellent NPR piece earlier this week, “Who Are the Gifted and Talented and What Do They Need?,” addresses the pitfalls of this focus on remediation, which too often results in ignoring the gifted students for the “greater good” of the class.

But just identifying who is gifted is an extremely fraught process. It’s commonly known that white and Asian students are massively overrepresented in G&T programs: In New York City elementary schools, according to a local newspaper, G&T programs are approximately 70 percent white and Asian while the public school population is 70 percent black and Hispanic. In 2012, New York revamped the test, partially in an effort to make it more inclusive, but so far enrollment statistics have hardly budged.

Some version of the G&T imbalance seen in New York is repeated nationwide, for various reasons: because the white and Asian parents are more likely to know how to game the system, because the kids come to the tests better prepared, because their teachers might be more likely to recommend them for testing.

Earlier this month, the Atlantic reported on a paper that points to one effective, if expensive, means of culling a more diverse group of gifted students: relying on universal screening more than teacher referrals, which leads to testing only a pre-selected group. An unnamed Florida district (thought to be Broward County) briefly experimented with testing all students for giftedness, with eye-opening results. Before the universal testing, black and Hispanic students made up 28 percent of the gifted and talented cohort, in a district that was 60 percent black and Hispanic. After universal testing, the minority G&T numbers shot way, way up (there’s a nice chart with the Atlantic article). Of course, budget cuts soon led to restricting and ultimately scrapping the program, but the difference in demographics during the brief window is pretty telling.

Meanwhile, large majority-minority urban districts like my hometown of Houston are still getting scrutinized for lopsided enrollments in G&T programs. Donna Ford, an education researcher at Vanderbilt University, said after studying Houston’s G&T program, “I think it’s a clear case of segregation, gifted education being segregated by race and income.” She told the Houston school board, “Racial bias has to be operating, inequities are rampant. Discrimination does exist whether intentional or unintentional.”

Will Houston, or Fort Lauderdale, or New York, find a long-term way to circumvent these inequities? If only anyone knew where to start.