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Why aren’t more black students identified as gifted?

Black students with black teachers admitted to gifted programs at rates similar to those for high-achieving white students
In Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, students in the gifted program study a local pond ecosystem. The district created a Young Scholars initiative in 2000 to increase the proportion of historically underrepresented students in K8 gifted programs.
In Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, students in the gifted program study a local pond ecosystem. The district created a Young Scholars initiative in 2000 to increase the proportion of historically underrepresented students in K8 gifted programs.

Black elementary school students are half as likely as their white peers to be assigned to gifted elementary programs in math and reading—even with comparably high test scores. But the racial gap in giftedness disappears when black students have a black teacher, according to a January study published in AERA Open, a journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Black students are three times more likely to gain entrance to gifted programs when taught by a black teacher, the study found. Black students with black teachers are admitted to gifted programs at rates similar to those for high-achieving white students.

Program availability also explains the disparity: 83 percent of black students attend an elementary school with a gifted program, compared to more than 90 percent of white students.

“The system is denying gifted services to high-achieving students of color for reasons beyond their control,” says Jason A. Grissom, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University and lead author of the study. “Assignments seem to be a function of what school you go to and what teacher you have.”

Screening all students

Assignments to gifted programs usually begin in elementary school, with a referral from a teacher followed by an evaluation process.

Universal screening—assessments given to all students to determine if one is advanced or needs extra help—is possibly the best option for closing the racial gap in gifted programs, Grissom says. “It takes out adult discretion, and ensures that all kids get a more systematic opportunity to be evaluated,” he says.

Schools with universal screening policies have greatly reduced race and income gaps in gifted enrollment. Broward County Public Schools screened all students from 2005-07, and identified as gifted a large number of students who were poor, black, Hispanic, or whose parents did not speak English. When the universal evaluations ended due to budget constraints, the racial gaps reappeared.

The cost of universal gifted screening tests vary, but schools can use existing state or district tests to determine giftedness instead, says Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University and a professor of education and social policy. “Use your existing data,” she says. “All schools are testing—look at results with the idea of finding kids who are making rapid progress.” Students who score above a certain percentile can enroll in gifted programs, she adds.

Districts should also screen students more than once to better identify English language learners and those who need time to catch up, Olszewski-Kubilius says.

Training teachers to determine giftedness in diverse populations can make programs more inclusive. “We have to do a better job at understanding cultural differences, and differences in expressions of talent,” Olszewski-Kubilius says. “If there is one thing you can change that would help, it would be the expectations of teachers so they have high expectations for all kids from all different backgrounds.”