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NYC Could Find Out if ‘Gifted & Talented’ Is Good for All Kids. But Will It?

Adams: Comparing the academic results of kids admitted by test versus lottery could provide a valuable lesson for education nationwide

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New York City has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve education not just for its own public school students, but for students across America, by using newly available data. Will the Department of Education take advantage of the moment or allow it to fall by the wayside?

For decades, the city has administered an IQ test to 4-year-olds applying to kindergarten. Traditionally, over 5,000 students would qualify for placement in gifted-and-talented programs, but with only about 2,500 seats available, placement would be determined by a combination of test score, residency and lottery.

The district kept no data comparing the ultimate academic results of high-performing students who earned a place in a G&T program versus those who qualified but weren’t lucky enough to receive a seat. So no data was available as to whether G&T education actually provided a value-add to a student’s overall achievement. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the test has been scrapped in favor of a more nebulous teacher recommendation process. The number of incoming kindergartners qualifying for G&T has tripled.

When testing was initially canceled in 2021, I advocated for taking it a step further and placing all kindergarten applicants in a G&T lottery:

What if … the district held a lottery for all students in the public school system, without requiring them to opt in? Those who were selected could be offered a seat in an accelerated citywide school, or in a district enrichment program. … With this approach, families who never even knew there was an accelerated or enriched school track would have a shot at these options. Based on current school demographics, statistically speaking, more offers would go to Black and Hispanic students, those who qualify for free and reduced-price school lunch and English learners.

While the current selection system doesn’t quite go that far — parents still need to opt in by listing at least one G&T school on their kindergarten application form — it is a step in that direction.

The problem is, no one will know if it’s a step in the right direction without data. Which is why it’s imperative the city immediately begin gathering and comparing the academic results of those students admitted to G&T programs under the old, test-based method versus those who got in via a glorified lottery.

The biggest pushback against lottery assignments is that students admitted without a test might not possess the cognitive abilities to handle advanced work.

In the same 2021 piece, I answered a parent’s query — What if we just don’t know if our kid is capable of accelerated programs? Won’t many more students be in misplaced accelerated classrooms? — with the reassurance that:

What Americans call “gifted and talented” education would be considered general education almost anywhere else in the world. This means any child, if paired with a good teacher — and, since 97% of NYC teachers are deemed either “effective” or “highly effective,” that’s a given — can do the work we currently consider accelerated. According to NPR, in some classes as many as up to 50% of children are performing above grade level. There’s no question that the bar is set way too low for all of America’s kids.

I still believe that. But to make others believe it, concrete evidence that students admitted via lottery can perform at the same level as those admitted via testing is desperately needed. Not as a means for legitimizing lottery admissions, but as proof that all kids can master a higher level of work than what is currently being doled out to them.

New York City is the largest school district in the U.S. Evidence-based practices honed here could then be applied across the country. Once those in charge of setting educational policy have data demonstrating any child can do “accelerated” work, parents and advocates can demand that standards be raised for all city students, followed by raising them for all children in America.

New York’s lottery-based G&T admissions system could prove the key to improving education for every single child. But that cannot happen without research to back it up.

Longitudinal studies are vital, comparing grades and test scores from before the pandemic and after. Breakdowns by race and by socio-economic status and even school by school, in case some instructional practices and/or teachers prove more effective than others, are also critical.

I suspect results will show that any child can do the work currently reserved for “gifted” students. But if I’m wrong, the data should demonstrate that, as well. Whichever side you fall on in the G&T debate, those of us committed to improving education for all students should be pushing for oversight, transparency and, most importantly, facts over conjecture.

The only question is: Will NYC collect this information, and will it then release it? In 2018, the city was forced to admit it had suppressed a study that “showed a strong positive relationship between doing well on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test and high school academic performance,” because those were not the results district leaders were looking for.

So far, the district is ducking the question of whether it should be providing “accelerated” work to all public school students by not compiling records that might prove all children are capable of it. Whichever side of the G&T debate you fall on, this should be unacceptable.

NYC spent the past three years jerking families around, changing admissions criteria at the last minute. The least parents deserve after all that is for some good to come of it in the form of concrete data on the results of all those modifications. No matter what they show.

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