Special Education

English Learners, Students With Disabilities Blocked From Gifted Programs, Data Finds

By Ileana Najarro — April 04, 2023 3 min read
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English learners and students with disabilities are substantially underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, according to a new national data analysis.

Specifically, English learners are an eighth as likely to be identified relative to their share of the national student population, and students with disabilities are a sixth as likely to be identified relative to their share.

For the report, Scott Peters, a senior research scientist at education nonprofit NWEA which offers tests and services to districts, and Angela Johnson, co-author and fellow NWEA researcher, analyzed national data from the U.S. Department of Education’s 2017-18 Office of Civil Rights Data Collection (the latest version of that dataset), the Stanford Education Data Archive, and coupled it with their scan of state gifted education policies. Researchers looked at schools with 10 or more English learners or students with disabilities.

The researchers also wanted to address what factors predicted these students’ representation, Peters said. For instance, is it simply that schools with a higher population of these students lack gifted and talented programs? And what policies could resolve this inequity of representation?

Some state factors seem to benefit English learners and students with disabilities

In their analysis, researchers found four factors in state policy that more likely increased the chances of English learners and students with disabilities having access to and being identified for these advanced programs:

  • When a state mandates that schools identify gifted students;
  • When a state mandates that districts maintain some formal plan for gifted services;
  • When a state reviews or approves those formal plans; and
  • When a state conducts audits of compliance for gifted and talented programs.

“You can imagine mandates could actually make equity worse if the schools do it but then just identify a whole bunch more of the kids that are already represented,” Peters said. “But that’s not what we found.”

Chances for students with disabilities to be identified as gifted also went up if a given state classified gifted and talented programs as a kind of special education—a broader definition than the federal definition, Peters said.

The analysis also found that the top 5 percent of schools with the best representation of English learners were classified as lower achieving academically and had a high enrollment of students from low-income families. The top 5 percent for representation of students with disabilities tended to be smaller schools.

‘A shift in belief': Solutions at the district level

So what happens for those school districts in states without mandates?

That’s where a reimagining of what counts as a gifted and talented student comes in.

Anthony Vargas, the supervisor of gifted and talented and advanced programs in Virginia’s Manassas City public schools, has in the last four years helped nearly double the proportion of students from families living in poverty and Hispanic students represented in gifted and talented programming.

“What it comes down to, in my opinion, is a shift in belief and a shift in mindset,” Vargas said. “For so long, I believe that the idea of giftedness, and its promotion and what it was, was so grounded in this [idea] of innate ability, ... and I think that it needs to be shifted more towards the idea of talent development.”

A major barrier to equity in gifted and talented programs is the identification process and the referral process, Vargas said.

“We have a lack of these students in programming, mainly, largely, because we have a lack of them being put up for programming or referred for programming,” Vargas said.

Districts need to look at how they are currently running identification processes for gifted and talented programs to then determine what extra policies and procedures need to be in place to target specific underrepresented populations. For example, in Vargas’ district, leaders did away with harsh cutoff scores and examined what existing supports students have access to.

Also, if English learners didn’t immediately qualify for gifted services, the district tracked how quickly they acquired the English language, an indicator of giftedness that can be overlooked.

Peters also pointed to the importance of funding and staffing these programs. But at the heart of any changes, he echoes Vargas’ note on a needed shift in mindset.

“I think if a lot of schools were to stop kind of combing the desert for the kids that have the inherent trait of giftedness, and would instead say: Who are the kids in my building who are most likely under-challenged?’ or, ‘Who could do more right here and right now?’, I think a lot of this equity problem would be less,” Peters said.

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