After years of discussion, New York City announced in October 2021 that it is overhauling gifted and talented programs, eliminating the testing of thousands of 4-year-olds and the city’s separate education system of schools and classrooms for students who score high on this one test. I wanted to know what the research evidence says about the model that New York is discarding and how education researchers would remake gifted and talented programs.
In New York City, roughly 2,500 kindergarteners a year are put into separate gifted and talented classrooms. That’s less than 4 percent of the city’s public school population and below the national average where almost 7 percent of students are tapped for gifted and talented programs. Gifted and talented programs are especially popular in the South. Maryland has the highest percentage of gifted students at 16 percent. By contrast, in Massachusetts, where students consistently post the highest test scores in the nation, only one half of one percent of students — 0.5 percent — are labeled “gifted” and given extra services.
Regardless of the number of students, the racial and ethnic composition of the students in gifted and talented programs is often askew. In New York City, the difference between gifted and general education is especially stark. White and Asian parents who have the resources and inclination to prepare their 4-year-olds to excel on standardized tests snag more than three quarters of the coveted seats, although these two groups account for less than a third of all students. Meanwhile, Black and Hispanic students make up more than 65 percent of the public school system but win only 16 percent of the gifted seats.
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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 Hispanic students, it’s 5 percent. That mirrors long-standing achievement differences on standardized tests but researchers have also found that gifted Black students are often overlooked, especially by white teachers.
A 2021 study in Ohio found that high-achieving students who score among the top 20 percent on third-grade tests were much less likely to be identified as gifted and stay high achieving if they are Black or low-income students. As they grew up, these Black and low-income high achievers were less likely to go to college.
“If we want to improve the racial or socioeconomic diversity of our colleges and beyond, these are the kids who have the best shot at doing so, and yet our schools are letting them down,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, which published the Ohio study.
Researchers have been studying ways to diversify the ranks of gifted-and-talented programs. Testing all students rather than relying on teacher recommendations and parent initiative has helped districts identify more students of color who qualify. In New York City, the system relied on parent initiative and many Black and Hispanic parents didn’t register their 4-year-olds to take the test.
Scholars applaud New York City’s plan to stop testing 4-year-olds and wait until later in elementary school to identify students.
“As a general rule, test scores become more accurate as students age with second- or third-grade being when they tend to stabilize,” said Scott Peters, an assistant professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, who studies gifted education. “It was ridiculous to ID students at age four for any kind of long-term services.”
Even with universal screening, which New York City said it is planning to do in the future, the numbers of Black and Hispanic students selected for gifted-and-talented programs can remain disappointing, researchers have found. That’s true even in school districts, such as Raleigh, North Carolina, that also review student work, not just test scores, when deciding who is gifted.
One popular idea is to cream the top from each school, creating a threshold for giftedness that varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. While that qualifies many more students of color from low-income schools, they would still be underrepresented in gifted classrooms, researchers have calculated. In a simulation across 10 states, 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. Hispanics would have 8 to 9 percent of the seats while they make up 13 percent of the population.
Racial achievement gaps are real in our society and it isn’t easy to overcome them simply by changing test-score thresholds or formulas for who gets admitted.
A second, equally important line of research is whether gifted-and-talented programs are worthwhile for the students who are in them. Several studies have found that students aren’t learning any more when they receive gifted services. A 2011 study in the Southwest found that gifted-and-talented programs throughout the district generated no discernible impact on math or reading. The study did detect higher science scores but only for students who attended a particular gifted-and-talented magnet school. Another 2012 study also found that gifted instruction had no effect on achievement. Most recently, a 2021 study published in the journal of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis found that gifted programs across the nation provided little to no academic boost.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that students aren’t achieving more in gifted classrooms when most educators admit they don’t even try to teach advanced material in them. A 2019 survey of teachers in gifted programs found they primarily focused on “enrichment activities” such as creative, fun projects and critical thinking exercises and discussions, keeping children on grade-level material, rather than moving them ahead to advanced academic content.
The research consensus, by contrast, argues for propelling high-achieving children ahead with accelerated lessons.
“Acceleration has a larger impact on student learning than many common instructional strategies and yet schools tend to rarely use it,” said Peters of the University of Wisconsin.
While some students display talent in all subjects, it’s far more common to have talent in one domain, such as math but not reading. Scholars say advanced lessons in specific subjects might be more effective and targeted to a student’s needs.
Some argue for the elimination of gifted-and-talented education altogether. But other researchers, including David Card, a University of California, Berkeley, economist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in October 2021, have found that bright students of color especially benefit from being surrounded by high-achieving peers. He and his University of California, Santa Cruz co-author Laura Guiliano, are now studying the long-term outcomes for gifted students in Florida.
University of Wisconsin’s Peters also argues for preserving gifted education.
“Schools love to say that they will just challenge all kids in the regular education classroom,” said Peters. “The problem is this tends to include five to seven grade levels of readiness. The result is teachers have to make hard choices on who gets to learn and there is self-report data that kids who are already at grade level don’t get attention.”
There’s still no consensus on how best to administer higher-level instruction for children who are already several grade levels above their peers. Across the country, gifted services vary widely. Sometimes, students learn in separate classrooms. Sometimes, they are pulled out for separate instruction. And sometimes, a specialist is sent into a classroom to work with advanced students in small groups.
As New York City fleshes out the details of its future gifted-and-talented program, the research evidence isn’t yet clear on which model is most effective.
This story about gifted and talented programs 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.