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Why are black students half as likely as white students to be assigned to gifted classrooms in U.S. public schools?  Only 2 percent of black students and 3 percent of Hispanic students are in gifted-and-talented programs, compared with 4 percent of white students and 6 percent of Asian students, according to an analysis of federal data since 1998.

It’s always been the case that many more white children test high enough to enter these programs than black children. That might be because many black children are poor, with less educated parents and fewer books at home. They may also have less access to high-quality preschool programs, the kind that feed children into these elite classrooms.

What’s less clear is whether academic aptitude entirely explains the racial gaps. Are we finding all the brainy minority children who can ace these tests, and steering them to gifted classrooms, or are we missing some of them?

Two Vanderbilt University researchers tried to answer this question by studying more than 10,000 elementary-school students who have a gifted program inside their schools. The researchers looked at the math and reading tests that all these students took — not a giftedness test, but a test administered to every child in a federal study — and compared students who had the same scores.  When white and Hispanic students had the same scores, they were equally likely to get placed in a gifted program. So the reason for the white-Hispanic “giftedness” gap is that more white children were able to hit the high achievement thresholds.

But a shockingly different result was found for black students in research published today, Jan. 19, 2016 in the journal, AERA Open, a peer-reviewed online journal of the American Educational Research Association.  Even between children with the same math and reading scores, a white student was twice as likely as a black student to get assigned to a gifted-and-talented program.

“This is especially troubling since previous studies have linked participation in gifted programs to improved academic performance, improvements in student motivation and engagement, less overall stress and other positive outcomes,” said Jason Grissom, one of the co-authors of the paper, “Discretion and Disproportionality: Explaining the Underrepresentation of High-Achieving Students of Color in Gifted Programs.”

The researchers searched for other reasons to explain why high-achieving black children are getting passed over for gifted placement. They looked at health, socioeconomic status and the child’s exact age. Perhaps delaying kindergarten entry, which is more popular among white families, could explain things, for example. But there was still a mysterious “giftedness gap” between black and white children

Then they finally found a possible answer: the race of the teacher.

When high-achieving black children were taught by a black teacher, they were just as likely to get assigned to a gifted program as similar high-achieving white children. There was no longer a black-white “giftedness gap.”

White students were unaffected by the race of their teacher. They were equally likely to get assigned to a gifted program regardless of the race of their teacher.

In school systems that offer separate instruction for gifted students, children generally begin their schooling in a regular kindergarten classroom of mixed abilities. Some get reassigned to a gifted classroom during that first kindergarten year. Others get assigned as late as fifth grade. The process for deciding which students get assigned to gifted-and-talented classrooms varies by state and school district, but generally involves some sort of academic aptitude test. (Interestingly, what constitutes a “gifted” child varies a lot around the country. The researchers found that some students who scored as low as the 75th percentile on the federal study’s assessments had been assigned to gifted classrooms).

In some schools, principals also factor in a student’s classroom performance, creativity or demonstrated leadership skills. In these cases, of course, teachers’ own racial biases could influence who gets tapped.

But it’s not clear that white teachers are biased against black students, Grissom cautioned in an interview. Teachers often have a limited role in deciding who should be in a gifted-and-talented classroom. In many school districts, it’s decided entirely by test scores.

Still, even when gifted placements are decided entirely by test scores, teachers often play a big role in identifying which students should take the test in the first place. Perhaps black teachers are more likely to recognize brilliance in a black student and suggest that the student be screened for giftedness.

Parents also play a big role in lobbying for their children to enter these programs. Another possibility is that black parents feel more comfortable advocating for their child with a black teacher, demanding that their child be screened for giftedness.

And finally it’s possible that black children perform better for a black teacher, and are more likely to demonstrate how brainy they are in these classrooms.

Grissom’s research didn’t investigate which of these hypotheses are correct. That’s work for future scholars.

Only 22 percent of black students have a black teacher, according to data cited in the paper. Schools could hire more black teachers. But no matter how many they hire, there’d still be white teachers teaching black students.

A better, quicker solution to reducing the racial gap in gifted classrooms, according to Grissom, is to test every child in the school system for giftedness, so that you’re not relying on subjective humans to decide whom to test. Education geeks call it “universal screening.”

Indeed, after Broward Country, Florida, adopted universal screening in 2005,  the number of Hispanic students in gifted programs increased by 130 percent and the number of black students by 80 percent. Low-income students increased by 180 percent. But it proved expensive to test everyone, and the district stopped testing all children in 2011. The number of disadvantaged students in gifted classrooms fell back to pre-2005 levels. (A September 2015 paper on this experiment is here.)

People often say the solution to our education problems isn’t more money. But in this case, it might be.

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