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The most troubling aspect of gifted classrooms is that they tend to be disproportionately filled with white and Asian students while bright black and Hispanic students often get overlooked. Indeed, gifted and talented programs can sometimes look like a clever tool to separate children by race or ethnicity in school. In New York City, for example, white and Asian parents who have the resources and/or inclination to prepare their four-year-olds to excel on standardized tests snag almost three quarters of the coveted seats. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students make up more than 65 percent of the public school system.

Nationally, more than 13 percent of all Asian students are enrolled in gifted programs compared with just 4 percent of black students, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Among whites, 8 percent get tapped for gifted classrooms. Among Hispanics, it’s 5 percent. That mirrors long-standing achievement differences on standardized tests.

Some policymakers are floating this remedy: Pick the top students in each school instead of those students who score among the top in the nation. Research scholars are now studying exactly what would happen to the racial and demographic composition of gifted classrooms if school districts were to switch their selection criteria this way. And they are also looking at how much achievement levels would dip.

Scott Peters, an assistant professor of education at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, has been modeling different ways to pick gifted students in 10 states. By choosing the best in each school, he found, “you get a much better diversity of population.” But the trade-off, he found, is that some students will be entering gifted programs with less academic preparation and they might need more instructional support to succeed. Moreover, the diversity benefits he found only materialize when schools are quite segregated to start, that is with high concentrations of blacks or Hispanics.

“The more integrated your schools are, the less it works,” Peters said.

Peters presented his calculations, which he conducted along with four colleagues (at four other universities), at a session the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting held in April, 2019, in Toronto. His study, “The Effect of Local Norms on Racial and Ethnic Representation in Gifted Education,” is slated for publication at AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. I was given an advance copy by the author.

Related: Gifted classes may not help talented students move ahead faster

The researchers studied the test scores of 3.3 million third graders from 2007 to 2016 in 10 states: California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Washington and Wisconsin. They didn’t have scores for every student in the public school system — only those who took the Measures of Academic Progress or MAP test, which is used by many schools around the country to track student performance during the academic year. During the decade studied in the 10 states, it was used by 10,000 schools across 3500 school districts. It’s a big study.

If you focus on third graders in the 10 states who managed to score among the top 5 percent in the nation in math, it’s a demographically skewed group of kids: only 2 percent are black and 3 percent are Hispanic. But if you were instead to select the top 5 percent in each school building in these 10 states, the share of black students in these hypothetical gifted classrooms would shoot up a whopping 300 percent. The share of Hispanic students in gifted classes would soar 170 percent.  Meanwhile, Asian and white students would lose seats. The Asian population in gifted classrooms would fall by 20 percent and the white population would fall by 7 percent.

While these shifts are dramatic, students of color would still be underrepresented in gifted classrooms even with this approach of creaming the top in each school. Black students would still account for only 8 to 10 percent of the gifted classroom seats, even though they make up 14 percent of the student population that the researchers studied. Hispanics would have 8 to 9 percent of the seats while they make up 13 percent of the population.

Academic achievement in these hypothetical gifted classrooms would change too. Peters gave me an example from one of the 10 states, which he didn’t name, to illustrate. On average, the cutoff for entering a gifted classroom across the state would drop from the 95th percentile to the 92nd percentile. Not a large drop, overall. But there is now a much wider range. In the schools with high concentrations of high achieving kids, the top 5 percent score at the 99th percentile nationally. A child scoring at the 98th percentile wouldn’t make the gifted cutoff. On the opposite end, among high-poverty schools, the cutoff would drop to the 60th percentile (to a score of 207 on the MAP test). That’s still above third-grade level work, but just barely. Gifted students are typically two grade levels ahead of their peers.

Related: Brainy black and Hispanic students might benefit most from ‘honors’ classrooms

Another 2018 study showed more dramatic changes if the city of Houston, where the majority of students are low-income and Hispanic or black, were to tap the top 5 percent of students in each school for gifted services. Carol Carman, an associate professor of education at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, calculated that the average score for “gifted” students would dip to less than 119 on the nonverbal Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT), slightly above average achievement nationally. In one building, where no students are currently selected for gifted classes, the top 5 percent of students would score around 105,  that of an average student nationally. On the bright side, Hispanic and black students would make up 64 percent and 16 percent of “gifted” classrooms in the city, respectively, approaching their actual shares of the student population. Using a test score cutoff of the top 5 percent in the nation, gifted classrooms would drop to 44 percent Hispanic and 9 percent black.

Education experts, like the rest of us, argue endlessly over whether it’s a good idea to accept the trade-off between achievement and diversity. Frank Worrell, a professor at the Berkeley Graduate School of Education, argued that it’s a bad idea to allow achievement levels to sink this low in gifted classrooms. He called picking the top 5 percent of students in each school building a “Band-Aid” to increase diversity and questioned whether it’s “fair to push out Asians who are achieving highly for the sake of including more blacks and Latinos.”

“We’re trying to compensate for an achievement gap that we cannot solve,” Worrell said at the April 2019 AERA session. “The problem here is that the purpose of gifted education is acceleration.” And kids who are scoring at grade level or just above probably don’t need more challenging content.

Instead, he argues for investing more in other programs that can help bright students of color offset the effects of poverty, such as Project EXCITE and Young Scholars, and help them to develop their minds to qualify for the gifted programs under current criteria.

Peters agrees that programs like these are terrific but they’re expensive and take years to see results. And he says, creaming the top of each school building separately makes sense when it comes to gifted education.

“The most defensible argument for the existence of gifted services is that they challenge kids who would otherwise go under-challenged,” Peters said to me in a follow-up conversation by email. “In that sense, one kid needs a gifted service because to otherwise remain in the regular ‘grade level’ classroom would mean that kid wouldn’t benefit from her time in school. If we accept this as the goal of gifted ed, then the question of ‘who is most likely to be under-challenged’ is an inherently local one.”

“If Bobby needs to be identified gifted to access algebra at one school and in another school he’s not identified as gifted because algebra is just part of that school’s regular services, what’s the problem?,” Peters said. “The [gifted] label is just a means to an end.”

This story about racial diversity was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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