Special Education What the Research Says

3 Out of 4 Gifted Black Students Never Get Identified. Here’s How to Find Them

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 03, 2022 4 min read
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Most Black students who could be tapped as academically gifted attend schools where they are either likely to be overlooked or have no access to getting identified at all, a study in the journal Urban Education finds.

In 2016 alone, while nearly 277,000 Black students were identified as academically gifted nationally, some 771,000 others were estimated to be “missing.” That’s after taking into account both the students who had no access to gifted identification and those who attended schools where students of their race were underidentified.

“It’s stark and it’s frightening,” said Marcia Gentry, a professor of education studies and the director of the Gifted Education Resource Institute at Purdue University, who led the research team. “I’m frustrated with the whole sense that [gifted education] will fix itself if we just find the right [screening] test. It’s bigger than that, and it’s been consistent for decades.”

The researchers used federal civil rights data for all U.S. public schools in 2000, 2011-12, 2013-14, and 2015-16 to track the numbers and percentages of students in different racial groups identified for gifted and talented education in rural, town, suburban, and city schools of different poverty levels. They found that more than 40 percent of schools across all locations—and far more than half in several states—never identified a single student of any race as academically advanced in any of the years.

Within the remaining schools that at least provided some access to gifted identification, the researchers found that the higher the concentration of Black students or students in poverty, the lower the actual percentage of overall students identified for gifted education. For example, campuses receiving schoolwide Title I funding identified on average 8 percent of their students as gifted, compared to 13 percent in non-Title I schools.

“We didn’t have a lot of bright spots, which was a little depressing,” she said.

Gentry also found similar, though smaller, disparities in gifted identification for other groups, such as Native American and Hispanic students, in separate prior studies.

A school was considered to have “equitable” gifted identification if a Black student was at least 80 percent as likely as a student of another race to be eligible; this is the same 0.8 equity ratio the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission uses to identify racial disparities in the workplace. So, if Black students made up 40 percent of a school’s population but 20 percent of its students identified as gifted, the school’s equity ratio would be 0.5, meaning Black students were underrepresented by half.

Black students in high-poverty schools had an equitable chance of being identified as gifted compared to students of other races in only six states—Arkansas, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Utah, and Wyoming—and they experienced such equity in low-poverty schools only in Illinois and Michigan.

In fact, while only Michigan identified Black students equitably in both high- and low-poverty schools, Gentry noted that only 12 percent of students in the state attended a school that identified any students at all as gifted during the study years.

“So, within that 12 percent, there’s equity, right? But 88 percent of the kids don’t have access,” she said. “That’s a problem.”

Gentry said preliminary analyses of the 2017-18 civil rights data show similar identification gaps as those in 2000-16, but more-recent data have not been available because of data collection delays due to pandemic-driven school closures and disrupted gifted screenings. Other studies, however, suggest the problem may have worsened during the pandemic, as fewer districts have had resources to dedicate to gifted identification.

Moreover, the Purdue study only looks at whether students were identified for gifted education; there was no way to tell what kind of educational services gifted students actually received and how effective they were.

Other recent research has found even when students of color are identified as academically gifted, they may receive less-beneficial services than their white peers. A 2021 Vanderbilt University study found that on average, gifted education programs resulted in only small bumps in reading and math achievement over a student’s elementary years, but those gains came mostly for white and Asian students.

Gentry advised school and district leaders to:

  • Review local data to identify any long-running racial and economic disparities and set measurable goals for inclusion.
  • Identify students for gifted education through both multiple measures, such as assessments and portfolios, and multiple pathways, including teacher, student, and parent nominations, and summer programs.
  • Focus gifted identification on individual strengths to be paired with services—such as math, writing, art, or leadership—rather than first identifying “general giftedness” as an entry to any services.
  • When using a gifted assessment, consider local rather than national norms when setting cutoff scores.

“You know, where there’s a magnet school of the gifted, they’ll oftentimes put it in a mostly brown or Black school, but you walk down the hall and the gifted program will be mostly white faces,” Gentry said. “People talk a lot about, well, if we get brown and Black kids in [gifted education], it’ll be good for the brown and Black kids, but it goes further than that. It’s actually good for the program, because it brings diversity of views and discussion and of culture. So not only does it enrich the kids [of color] we put in there, but it makes the program better for all the kids who are there.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2022 edition of Education Week as 3 Out of 4 Gifted Black Students Never Get Identified. Here’s How to Find Them

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