Overhauling Gifted Ed: Schools, Feds, Researchers Race to Better Identify Top Students of Color

Updated March 3This is one article in a series that examines gifted education, classroom creativity and geniuses in society. (See our full genius archive) The 74 is a proud media partner of the 92nd Street Y's "7 Days of Genius," a global series of events orchestrated to explore "the power of genius to make a positive impact on the world" running March 5-12. See events: 92y.org/Genius
The face of the American student is changing, and schools across the country are scrambling to keep up, providing additional services for the growing number of students in poverty and offering English language instruction to children who start school speaking dozens of languages.
After decades of working under the mandates of No Child Left Behind to raise all students’ achievement to a minimum level, schools and education leaders are increasingly turning their attention to the brightest children among the ever-diversifying student body.
It’s work that’s clearly needed: Black and Hispanic children represent 40 percent of students, but 26 percent of those enrolled in gifted and talented programs at schools that offer them, according to federal statistics from the 2011-12 school year.
Donna Ford, a professor at Vanderbilt University who has studied the underrepresentation of children of color in gifted education programs, calls the issue a national crisis.
“I don’t want to see any child who has an opportunity to excel be denied that opportunity because they’re black or because they’re low-income, and that is what’s happening in too many situations,” she said.
The fight is personal. As a gifted student in a 99 percent black neighborhood in East Cleveland in the 1970s, there were few opportunities for Ford at her neighborhood school. She got a “better chance scholarship” and joined four or five other black girls at the prestigious Hathaway Brown School an hour away in affluent Shaker Heights.
Ford didn’t fit in at Hathaway Brown, which bills itself as Ohio’s oldest continually operating girls’ college preparatory school. Her old friends drifted away too, as peers from her Cleveland neighborhood didn’t understand why she’d left their school.
“I didn’t feel welcome in my community, I didn’t feel welcome at that school, and I basically became a loner,” she said. She left after a year and returned to the Cleveland schools, where she was still too advanced to fit in with her classmates.
It hasn’t gotten easier for Ford. In recent years, she’s had trouble getting appropriate identification and services for her gifted son.
The availability of gifted education for children of all races across the country is spotty. Once emphasized during the Cold War as a way to compete with the Soviet Union and sure up the national defense, gifted education has taken a back seat in recent years. Some cite that ever-present national educational boogeyman No Child Left Behind; others say it’s just a matter of funding priorities. 
Unlike students with special needs, who have a strong federal law — and billions to back it — requiring schools to support their needs, there is no mandate from Washington to identify or serve the highest achievers.
State laws run the gamut: Each state sets its own standards for whether, and how, gifted students must be identified, and then the services schools must provide to those who meet that bar.
Four states — Iowa, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Georgia — require schools to offer gifted programming and — crucially — pay for it, according to the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a nonprofit that focuses on profoundly gifted students.
Nine states – South Dakota, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Delaware and the District of Columbia – neither require schools to offer gifted programming, nor offer money if they did. The remainder of the states fall somewhere in between — either paying for programs if districts choose them or requiring programming but not funding it.
The Referral Problem
Not all schools offer gifted programs, but in those that do, what’s causing the yawning gap between the identification of white students and their peers of color?
It’s not, of course, that white and Asian students are any more naturally gifted than their black and Hispanic peers. It’s just that schools aren’t finding those extra-able students of color in the first place.
For many years, schools relied on parents and teachers to refer students who then took a standard IQ test. That system presents two problems.
First, teachers systematically under-refer English language learners and students of color; Ford calls it the number one reason for underrepresentation of minority, low-income and English language learner students.
“Teacher biases blind them to see gifts and talents in certain populations, so we need to be very cautious with our use of teacher referral,” she said.
Family referrals present their own host of challenges. Parents may not be aware of gifted programming options or have the language skills necessary to refer their children. And unlike the old adage that every parent is convinced their child is gifted, the parents of low-income or minority children, Ford said, tend to under-score their children’s gifts when they do refer them. That leaves those kids with more moderate points in measures of gifted behaviors, handicapping their chances for referral, testing, and placement in advanced or enriched programs.
Then comes the test. A standard verbal IQ test, experts say, was created to measure the intelligence of middle class white males, and “assumes a certain cultural capital for the student taking it,” said Jennifer Giancola, director of research at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, a Virginia-based foundation that supports research on and scholarships for gifted children from low-income families. The IQ test also limits children with weaker English language skills.
A better method, research and experts say, is to screen all children, and to do so with a test that doesn’t require strong English skills.
That’s been the focus of an effort in the schools in Seminole County Florida in suburban Orlando. It was one of 11 winners — a group that also included eight state education departments and the university systems in Wisconsin and Virginia — to split slightly more than $4 million in grants from the Jacob K. Javits program, the only federal spending earmarked for the country’s highest-achieving children.
All of the projects are focused on expanding the number of minority and other underrepresented groups in gifted programs.
Seminole’s stats are like many districts across the country: white and Asian students make up 60 percent of the student body but 80 percent of those participating in gifted programs. Black and Hispanic students combined, meanwhile, were 36 percent of students but less than 15 percent of those in gifted programs, according to federal data for the 2011-12 school year.
Jeannette Leukens, an educator in the district’s Exceptional Student Support office, is directing Project ELEVATE, which looks to create a better “matrix” of test scores and other measures used to identify gifted children who aren’t spotted using the usual intelligence tests.
“We want to make sure that we are utilizing best practices, research-based components in that matrix,” Leukens said.
The work will start at five elementary schools where a large number of students are low income. If Congress appropriates the total $2.4 million the feds would like to give Seminole schools, it would expand to another five elementary schools and two middle schools.
The district is also partnering with experts from the University of Central Florida to improve teacher and parent identification of giftedness in students from those populations. The grant also will help the district write an “internationally responsive” curriculum for gifted minority students and expand its talent development program, which supports students who show potential but haven’t been officially identified as gifted.
“The grant is all about scaling up a current project that’s showing progress,” Lukens said.
Research backs the efforts Seminole and the other Javits winners are undertaking.
A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research released in September examined an unnamed large urban school district before and after implementation of universal screening of second-graders using a non-verbal test.
After the universal screening, with no change to the minimum score requirements, the program “led to a 180 percent increase in the gifted rate among all disadvantaged students, with a 130 percent increase for Hispanic students and an 80 percent increase for black students,” the researchers wrote.
The district in the study, like many across the country, already had different threshold scores: To move to the next step in the screening process, non-disadvantaged students had to get 130 points, while those who are eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch, a common measure of poverty, had to get 115.
The logic for the lower cutoff, Giancola said, is that the tests are aiming to measure capacity, which is the “product of everything that’s been poured into you from the day you were born.”
Students in underrepresented groups likely had fewer resources — things like high-quality preschool, effective teachers, or extracurricular enrichment — “poured into them” in the years before they took the gifted test.
“You’re not going to do as well on that test, and it doesn’t mean you’re not smart, you just haven’t been given the same nurturing environment to allow you to perform well,” she said.
Fairfax, Virginia: A Gifted Child’s Utopia
Even as the Seminole schools, and many others across the country, work to make their programs more inclusive, one school is already taking a no-holds-barred approach to capturing all its gifted kids.
Schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the country’s largest districts, educating more than 165,000 children in suburban Washington, D.C., started to revamp their process about 15 years ago.
Around 2000, district gifted education coordinators noticed that even though they used criteria beyond just an intelligence test to screen gifted students, “the gifted programs just weren’t very diverse,” said Carol Horn, gifted coordinator at Fairfax schools. She joined the district as a gifted teacher in 1989 and moved into the central office to work on gifted programming 10 years later.
“We knew there were students from all cultural groups, across all economic strata, in all areas of the population that were gifted, however, the current practices we used just weren’t identifying them,” Horn said.
One principal suggested they start the screening early — as soon as kindergarten. So they gathered 30 incoming first-, second-, and third-graders and got money from the district for a three-week summer school program. The students spent their time investigating wetlands, culminating in a field trip to nearby Huntley Meadows, a county park.
It was a huge success, with news of its results spreading by word-of-mouth among principals. By the next year, there were Young Scholars programs in 16 different schools. It’s now offered at 81 of the district’s 139 elementary schools and three of 26 middle schools.
Implementing the model, which now includes special programming during the academic year, requires collaboration among classroom teachers and gifted resources teachers and leadership from principals to make it a priority, Horn said.
“Curriculum becomes the identifier of talent. The students may not have the verbal and math skills to do well on traditional tests, however, when you start to listen to them talk and give them problems to solve, you start to see what amazing thinkers they are,” she said.
Although participation in the Young Scholars program isn’t equivalent to a gifted and talented designation, the program is helping find students who likely would’ve otherwise been left aside. Just over half — 53 percent — of those in the Young Scholars program are eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch, and many are English language learners, Horn said.
And of the roughly 5,000 Young Scholars now in junior and senior high, 95 percent are taking an honors, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate course, or are getting full-time gifted instruction in designated Level 4 centers for the district’s most gifted children.
Of the younger students in the program, Horn estimated about half are eligible for Level 2 services. Those provide differentiated instruction by the classroom teacher to students in kindergarten through sixth grade in subjects where they excel.
The remaining half of elementary-level Young Scholars are split between the top-tier Level 4 centers, which run from third through eighth grade, and Level 3 programs, which offer part-time services by a gifted resource teacher from third through sixth grade.
Rose Masuku’s daughter Namambo, a fifth-grader in the Fairfax schools, participated in the Young Scholars program this summer, something Masuku says she looked forward to every morning. Namambo now receives Level 3 services in math and English, and loves her gifted instructor and the project-based learning she assigns. A friend who lives down the street is also in Namambo’s class, and the two often talk about what they did at school, Masuku said.
“She learns quickly and gets bored,” Masuku said, “so I’m really happy they could put her in something more challenging.”
For older students, there are also honors classes open to all seventh- and eighth-graders, and all high school students can take honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes. They also can dual enroll in local colleges, or apply to attend the district’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which U.S. News ranked number 3 in the country this year.
Fairfax is, of course, an anomaly nationally. Although the schools are diverse (about 40 percent white, 25 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian, and 10 percent black), students tend to come from wealthy families. The average household income is well over $100,000, and more than two-thirds of households had incomes over $75,000 in 2013, according to the Census Bureau.
For all of its successes and national praise, though, the programs in Fairfax may be in danger: The district faces a budget shortfall somewhere between $50 and $75 million for next school year, The Washington Post reported.
“At times like this everything’s up for the chopping block, and it’s just hard to predict what will happen,” Horn said. The program has survived “quite a few” budget cuts, which Horn chalks up to the number of children served.  
“Because so many students benefit from the services we provide,” she said. “I hope it continues.”

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today