Christina Torres knows what it’s like to be one of very few gifted students of color in a classroom of mostly white students. After one of her teachers advocated for her, giving her the opportunity to retake the test for the gifted and talented track after she missed by only a couple points, Torres said she was disconnected from many of the other Latino kids at school, most of whom attended regular classes.
But Torres, now a middle and high school English and Drama teacher at the University Laboratory School in Honolulu, Hawaii, is also aware of all of the ways she benefited from being on a gifted and talented track.
“I was given every opportunity that a lot of kids in the regular classes weren’t given,” Torres said. For instance, even though she said she didn’t have the aptitude for math that some of the students in regular classes may have had, she received a better foundation that allowed her to go on to take advanced math classes.
Gifted and talented classes are controversial because they easily represent the epitome of educational inequality. By their very nature, they require setting some students apart as more likely to succeed, and in doing so, all but guarantee that those students will do better than those in regular tracks. But on top of this, critics argue that these classes reinforce race and class opportunity gaps, due to problems such as teacher bias against students of color and wealthy and upper middle class — often white — parents having the ability to game the system in favor of their child.
How privileged students game the system
There’s a reason why Torres was the only Latino student in her class for the majority of her time in the gifted and talented program.
When you look at the odds of a student of color getting into a gifted program compared to a white student, the disparities are pretty striking. The odds of a black student getting into a gifted and talented program are 66 percent lower than they are for a white student student, according to a study published earlier this year in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed publication of the American Educational Research Association. Latino students’ odds are 47 percent lower compared to white students. For Asian students, however, the odds of assignment into a gifted and talented program are 44 percent higher than for white students.
Low-income students, black and Latino students, and English language learners have a few barriers that make it harder for them to get into gifted classes. For example, the IQ tests required to gain entry focus a lot on vocabulary, which is harder for students whose families haven’t fully learned English, aren’t using complex sentences, or use a different vernacular. If you’re a black or Latino student, racial bias may prevent teachers from noticing your intelligence and recommending you for testing.
Even beyond that, affluent families have the resources to give their kids an extra edge. They can better prepare their children for IQ tests by paying for practice tests and sending them to private psychologists, who may identify more gifted students. Card said earlier research he conducted in 2014 found a huge spike in IQ scores at 130 points for non-disadvantaged students that would suggest influence from private psychologists.
“If you look at the scores of kids who are tested by private psychologists, you see a huge number of kids who just barely pass [to get into the programs]. So it looks like the private psychologists are basically gaming the system, and I think almost everybody knows that that’s true,” said David Card, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley and a co-author of a new study examining how gifted classes can benefit non-gifted students.
“The private tests cost a $1,000 so basically, if your kid is close, for $1,000 you can get them over the bar,” Card added. “So you have the combination of family background and language that will lower the scores no matter what you do, plus, if you really want to and you’re high-income, you can take courses so you do better on the tests, just like SAT coaching.”
The students on the edge often have the most to gain. Card’s study — which was looking at a program at a large school district in the southeastern U.S. that made gifted and talented classes available to students who weren’t identified as gifted but scored well on statewide tests — found significant achievement gains among non-gifted students that persisted into sixth grade. Card said those results were a surprise.
“The whole set of results is not what we expected to see,” Card said. “The kids who really benefited were not the kids who were gifted… If you look at the results, it’s the kids who barely get in [through state test scores].”
How disadvantaged students slip through the cracks
CREDIT: Patrick Semansky, AP
But students of color, as well as students with behavioral issues, may end up getting overlooked by teachers who don’t recognize their intelligence.
“Where people get confused is that they don’t know the difference between like what a scholar looks like, which is being quiet and compliant, versus actually being able to handle the material,” said Jose Vilson, a middle school math educator in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City and author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and the Future of Education. “Unfortunately a lot of our kids fall into the trap, which is they are super smart but maybe they aren’t competing well within the classes or maybe they’re just behaviorally challenged or something of that nature.”
For instance, most of the students in Vilson’s class who have trouble sitting still or who make jokes during class are often the ones who feel unchallenged by the subject material.
“They may be pretty brilliant, but you have to challenge them with the material and have a class that keeps up with them and their brain,” Vilson said.
Vilson said that one solution could be to change the process for admitting students into gifted classes. Instead of simply having teachers recommend students thanks to a gut feeling about their intelligence, and relying heavily on IQ tests, there should be recommendations from teachers who have observed students for a certain period of time and can use specific criteria to judge academic prowess that may help mitigate bias.
Torres said better outreach to parents in low-income communities and communities of color to increase awareness of the programs and help parents push their students into programs is also important to ensure students don’t get left behind due to biases and lack of access to certain resources.
Additional research that Card and his co-author, Laura Giuliano, an associate professor of economics at the University of Miami, released last fall backs this up. They found that teachers often aren’t identifying bright students of color. But when students are given nonverbal tests — such as matching up geometric figures — and the students who excel on those test are referred to get a free IQ test, the fraction of black students in the program almost doubled and the fraction of Hispanic students more than doubled. More girls were also accepted into the program.
“So what was going on is that there are gifted and talented minority kids in the room who teachers aren’t noticing and they’re not putting them forward and if you went and looked for them, you would find they were actually there,” Card said.
A teacher’s race also has an influence on the likeliness of students of color to be referred to gifted programs, according to Vanderbilt University researchers. Black students with black teachers were three times more likely to be accepted into a gifted program, compared to black students with similar academic ability with teachers of a different race. When taught by black teachers, black students were assigned to gifted tracks at nearly the same rate as white students, according to the same study published in AERA Open.
Gifted and talented programs mirror inequities across our education system
The problem, however, goes past disadvantaged students’ access to gifted and talented programs. It’s about lack of access to a high quality of education in general. Many schools are still deeply segregated by race and class — and race has proven to be the bigger factor in quality of education, since poor white families still tend to live in more affluent neighborhoods than middle class black and Latino families and thus generally attend better schools.
Schools are resegregating across the U.S., with 53 percent of black students whose districts were released from desegregation orders between 1990 and 2011 attending “apartheid” schools, where less than 1 percent of their classmates are white, according to an analysis by ProPublica. Schools with high-minority populations usually have low-income populations, making the schools economically homogeneous as well, according to 2012 report from The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.
This means that students of color are missing out on more resources in general. Gifted and talented classes are just one example of how they are shortchanged during their educational careers.
Some schools may not have gifted programs, but other schools don’t have as much as a single Advanced Placement class. And when school districts take extraordinary measures to increase access, it can be costly. Card and Guiliano’s research on access found that the district conducted 1,300 additional IQ tests, which meant high overtime costs.
“I have yet to teach at a school that had a gifted and talented program,” Torres said. “We make the early assumption that they’re not capable by not even offering the class. Talented and gfted classes are already controversial and any time you call a kid something that kind of predestines them and doesn’t let them into that system, what does that mean for them? But when you add on to that systemic racism and the issues that come with it, that gets even stickier.”
One of the advantages students who don’t get into these programs are missing out on most, Card’s study shows, are higher teacher expectations. Teacher quality and peer influence were not considered major influencers and explain only 10 percent of the test score gains students of color made in their gifted and talented classes, the authors wrote.