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The basis for gifted and talented programs is the somewhat innocuous notion that a subset of children are capable of high levels of performance and may benefit from educational services outside a traditional classroom setting. A critical first step in meeting the educational needs of such children is screening, followed by the formal identification of those that have the potential to thrive with additional academic supports. In most districts, students can be identified as gifted in five areas: general intellectual ability, specific academic ability, visual and performing arts, and leadership. Yet, intellectual ability, often measured by IQ tests, has long been the predominant factor in determining placement in gifted and talented programs.
Given that students historically and currently marginalized by the educational system tend to underperform on such assessments, it may come as no surprise to readers that students who identify as Black or Latina/Latino are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs compared to White students. An analysis of data from the Office of Civil Rights from the 2011-2012 school year show that 7.63% of White students participate in gifted and talented programs compared to 3.35% of Latina/Latino students and 3.17% of Black students.
Yet, differences in test performance are not the only factor explaining racial and ethnic disparities in gifted and talented program participation. Research I conducted with Jason Grissom shows the identification of gifted students includes factors unrelated to performance or ability. Instead, teachers play an outsized role in determining the students screened for giftedness in the first place. That teachers often function as gatekeepers in determining which students are referred for gifted evaluations is of concern given substantial evidence of more negative perceptions of Black and Latina/Latino. Teachers’ racialized perceptions of their students may lead them to consciously or unconsciously draw on stereotypes that influence how they evaluate the classroom behavior and academic performance in ways consequential for gifted referral. For instance, a student may disengage from course material for a variety of reasons. They may not see the relevance of the material. They may not find the material particularly challenging. Out-of-school factors also shape the child’s ability to focus in class. How a teacher comes to interpret these classroom behaviors results from their understanding of the student’s cultural background. A teacher’s implicit and explicit biases may lead them to overlook the potential of a child, particularly when the child’s racial or ethnic identity is different from the teachers. My research with Dr. Grissom suggests that among Black students, being assigned to a Black teacher is linked to increased assignment to gifted programs, partially closing disparities in access to these educational services.
How should schools screen for giftedness?
One approach to overcoming racial and ethnic disparities in gifted program participation has been the expansion of the definition of giftedness. District and state definitions of giftedness now often include additional criteria, such as creativity or visual and performing arts ability. In such instances, evaluation is done in a more holistic fashion, with psychologists, teachers, parents, and other school personnel assessing a student’s academic potential based on the multiple criteria method. Proponents of this approach contend that moving beyond intellectual ability as the sole determinant in deciding giftedness allows for a more comprehensive picture of a child’s talents, thereby creating the potential for more equitable assessment.
Still, even if all students had an equal chance of being referred for gifted screening, more affluent White students may still be more likely to be identified as gifted. First, as the gifted screening process becomes more complicated, more affluent White families are often better positioned—often through social networks and knowledge of school processes—to influence the process in favor of their child. Second, children from more affluent families may have greater exposure to out-of-school enrichment opportunities that foster the very skills valued as part of a gifted evaluation portfolio. Third, affluent parents may hire costly private psychologists rather than rely on school-based psychologists, an expense that families who are low-income may not be able to afford. In short, the involvement of teachers and parents in the referral and identification process has the potential to result in the systematic underassignment of students historically marginalized by the educational system. To curb this trend, school stakeholders could more actively support and advocate for children of color who are low-income.
Another approach to gifted referrals involves the universal screening of all students. This approach has seen the greatest use in Florida, where the state’s “Plan B” policy encourages school districts to adopt strategies to increase the number of low-income and English language learners in gifted programs. In one Florida district, the adoption of universal screening was linked to an 80% increase in the number of Black students and 130% increase in Latina/Latino students. Yet, universal screening remains costly and gains made in the district were largely lost when universal screening was abandoned in the face of budget costs during the Great Recession. As districts that implement the Plan B policy often set different thresholds for being referred for a gifted evaluation, parents and other critics argue that it is unfair or it reduces the rigor of gifted programs.
Despite its promise, universal screening may do little to improve the representation of students of color in gifted programs unless accompanied by enhanced teacher and administrator training in identifying giftedness among racially and ethnically diverse students. Concerns also remain about cultural biases in the instruments used to screen for giftedness as well as the continued use of standardized achievement scores as a determinant of who is eligible for screening in the first place. More broadly, the sensitivity of the identification procedure raises broader questions about the arbitrary nature of the term “gifted,” a term that may be consequential for a student’s own beliefs about their potential. Further, the body of evidence on the malleability of intelligence underscores the importance of the continued cultivation of a child’s intellectual ability, regardless of whether or not a child is labeled as gifted by the educational system.
As a first step, school and district administrators can critically examine programmatic equity in gifted programs under their purview. Evidence of the underrepresentation of certain student groups can be followed by an examination of the policies and school practices related to the referral and screening of gifted students that may lead to inequities in receipt of gifted services.
Ford, D. Y., Moore III, J. L., & Scott, M. T. (2011). Key theories and frameworks for improving the recruitment and retention of African American students in gifted education. The Journal of Negro Education, 80(3), 239–253.
Grissom, J. A., & Redding, C. (2016). Discretion and disproportionality: Explaining the underrepresentation of high-achieving students of color in gifted programs. AERA Open, 2(1), 2332858415622175.
Grissom, J. A., Rodriguez, L. A., & Kern, E. C. (2017). Teacher and principal diversity and the representation of students of color in gifted programs: Evidence from national data. The Elementary School Journal, 117(3), 396–422.
Lareau, A., & Horvat, E. M. (1999). Moments of social inclusion and exclusion race, class, and cultural capital in family-school relationships. Sociology of Education, 72(1), 37–53.
Tenenbaum, H. R., & Ruck, M. D. (2007). Are teachers’ expectations different for racial minority than for European American students? A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99, 253–273.
Author bio: Christopher Redding is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership in the School of Human Development and Organizational Studies in Education at the University of Florida. He earned his doctorate in Leadership and Policy Studies from Vanderbilt University. He conducts rigorous research using survey and administrative data that focuses on the policies and educator labor market patterns that exacerbate the unequal distribution of high quality teachers and the reforms intended to reduce this problem. Broadly, this research describes failures in the teacher labor market that impede the learning opportunities for underserved students and the ways in which changes in teacher education, development, and leadership opportunities can lead to better teacher retention and student outcomes, particularly in underserved schools.