It is understandable that school administrators and teachers focus their attention on the students who face the greatest academic struggles in the classroom. I did this myself when I was the chancellor of the New York City schools more than a decade ago, with an emphasis on reducing the dropout rate and enabling more students to graduate. But in doing so, educators fail to pay enough attention to the needs of some of the brightest students.
Millions of K-12 students are capable of more challenging coursework than they are currently assigned. A recent study by Johns Hopkins University and Duke University used student-assessment data from multiple states to estimate that 20 percent to 40 percent of elementary and middle school students in the United States are performing at least one level above their current grade on standardized reading tests and between 11 percent and 30 percent above on standardized math tests, but are nonetheless taught their grade-level curricula.
This suggests that many of the nation’s estimated 40.1 million pre-K-8 students in public and private schools are denied access to accelerated, challenging learning. While it’s encouraging to know that so many students are capable of doing so well in school, it’s disturbing that they are not all being given the opportunities they deserve to excel at the proper level.
What’s even more troubling? Students are often selected for gifted programs in a discriminatory manner. Low-income and minority students are underrepresented in gifted education programs, according to a 2015 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. After studying the screening process for gifted abilities in Florida’s Broward County school district, researchers found that black and Latino students; students who got free or reduced-price lunches; English-language learners; and female students were underreferred to the gifted program.
While the U.S. Department of Education reports that black and Hispanic students account for more than 40 percent of public school enrollment in the United States, they made up just 26 percent of the 3.2 million public school students enrolled nationwide in gifted education programs in 2011-12. This is not, of course, because these students are any less capable than their white and Asian-American classmates.
One cause for the gaps is a lack of student referrals from educators. Black students are 66 percent less likely to be referred to gifted programs in math and reading than their white classmates, according to a 2016 study by researchers from Vanderbilt University. Recommendations for Hispanic students are 47 percent less common. But when black students are taught by a black teacher, they are three times more likely to be assigned to gifted programs.
When black students are taught by a black teacher, they are three times more likely to be assigned to gifted programs."
In fact, when every student is tested for entrance to gifted programs, the number of low-income and minority students greatly increases. In Broward County, the school system saw a 130 percent increase in the gifted rate among Latinos and an 80 percent increase among black students after implementing a universal-screening process. And when Orange County’s public schools—a high-poverty district based in Orlando, Fla.—also shifted to universal screening, the number of students who were identified as gifted increased by 7 percent in the first year.
The extent of gifted education’s current discrimination has the potential to affect students’ futures after high school. Between 2000 and 2010, five states adopted mandates requiring all high school juniors to take a nationally standardized college-entrance exam. In two of the states, nearly half of all students took tests, and 40 percent to 45 percent of them earned scores to qualify for selective colleges. The enrollment of students in those states at selective institutions rose by 20 percent. This shows that students may grow to underestimate what they are capable of when not given the chance to prove themselves.
The path forward for our schools should be clear: Test every single child and then make appropriate placements. When we leave it up to teachers, parents, or even students themselves to determine who should be tested for high-ability classes, programs, and opportunities, many outstanding students—especially those who are black, Hispanic, or low-income—get left out. We must stop underestimating students’ abilities and denying them the advanced instruction they deserve.
I recently visited the Davidson Academy of Nevada, in Reno, a public school designed to meet the needs of middle and high school students who score in the 99.9 percentile on their IQ or college-entrance tests, such as the SAT or the ACT. Class assignments are made exclusively on the basis of ability, regardless of a student’s age. It is a route more schools should take.
Our goal should be to find the most appropriate academic placement for each child to help him or her succeed. This also means accepting that a child’s age doesn’t always define his or her capabilities in every subject. For example, an 8-year-old in 3rd grade may be reading at the 5th grade level but doing 2nd grade math. Education should be tailored to meet the needs of every child.
The best way to break the cycle of poverty from one generation to the next is to open the doors to equal educational opportunities for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income. To do so, we must make gifted programs more accessible and affordable to all students and use professional development for educators to help them recognize and abandon stereotypes.
Far too many bright young students are left to fend for themselves in an education system that too often venerates mediocrity. Our nation fails these boys and girls by not giving them the challenging education they need to reach their full potential. And we as a society fall short by not allowing our country to fully benefit from students’ brainpower and talents. Let’s start enabling all of the nation’s students to live up to their potential.