Schools Seek to Diversify Gifted, Honors Classes

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 27, 2015 10 min read
Kaianna Kelley, an 8th grader at Harriet G. Eddy Middle School, in Elk Grove, Calif., gets a hug from counselor Sandi Peterson after turning in her application to the school’s honors program. Peterson says she has made it her mission to reach out to underrepresented students for honors and gifted classes.
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It’s no secret that gifted and honors classes are often whiter and wealthier than their schools as a whole.

At every stage of students’ educational careers, the pipeline to academically advanced study narrows for many low-income and minority students. Research suggests years of little biases add up, shaping who gets identified for gifted education and advanced courses and how many hoops they jump through to do so. And with politicians and policymakers increasingly focused on promoting rigorous, “college-ready” coursework, those leaks can leave thousands of the most promising students behind.

Here in Elk Grove, a suburb of Sacramento, Calif., the school district has invested more than $860,000 in overhauling the gifted- and advanced-course procedures that unintentionally discriminate against poor and minority students. In the process, teachers and administrators are learning how to see students’ potential in new ways.

“It’s a very challenging process,” said John B. Diamond, a University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis who studies bias in schools.

“When people see evidence of disparities, they tend to filter it through preconceived ideas about kids’ desire to learn or families’ capacity to be involved,” he said. “Part of the challenge is helping people see how their practices can exacerbate disparities.”

Falling Off Track

Access to advanced courses remains a pressing issue too.

From 2003 to 2011, the portion of low-income white 4th graders who scored at the advanced level in mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose from 2 percent to 3 percent. Low-income black and Hispanic students showed no gains during that time, with 1 percent of Hispanics and, statistically speaking, zero percent of black 4th graders reaching advanced scores on the math NAEP.

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By contrast, 12 percent of high-income white students scored at the advanced level in 4th grade math in 2011, up 5 percentage points from 2003, but only 3 percent of black and 5 percent of Hispanic high-income 4th graders reached that level, up 2 percentage points and 3 percentage points, respectively, from 2003.

“Racialized” academic-tracking outcomes are not confined to schools in the South, as some might think, said Karolyn Tyson, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Even when schools are giving kids the choice [to take advanced courses], they don’t want to do it, because they don’t feel prepared, and they don’t want to fail,” said Tyson, who studies honors access.

A series of analyses by the Education Trust found that more than 9 in 10 high school students nationwide attend a school with at least one Advanced Placement class, but poor students are nearly twice as likely to attend a school that offers only a few such classes, rather than a “full complement” of at least one AP class each in English, math, science, and social studies.

Five years ago, the 62,500-student Elk Grove system was one of hundreds of districts nationwide that were censured by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights for not providing equal access to gifted education at the elementary level and to honors courses in high school.

Investigators found the generally high-performing Elk Grove had serious achievement gaps, but unlike districts such as Adams County 14 in Colorado, it had no history of intentional bias against its students.

Rather, in practice, the programs and policies in place on paper to boost achievement for all students unintentionally put poor or black, Hispanic, and Native American students at a disadvantage.

At the time, Elk Grove students who performed in the top 2 percent on the California Standards Test automatically qualified for gifted and talented education, or GATE. In theory, students also could be recommended by teachers or earn points in a “gifted matrix” for a high grade point average, creative ability, and classroom leadership, or a high score on a nonverbal-ability test designed to identify gifted students.

In practice, though, schools relied overwhelmingly on state test scores. Teachers didn’t know how to gauge unusual creativity or leadership in the classroom. From 2009 to 2011, no black student was referred for gifted screening based on leadership or creativity, federal investigators found, and many teachers at low-income and high-minority schools did not even know it was an option.

Myth vs. Reality

In some of the district’s schools, even black students who were doing advanced coursework within their classes were not recommended for gifted identification.

As a result, in 2013-14, Elk Grove had about 3,200 gifted students, but black, Hispanic, and English-learner students, as well as those in the foster-care system, were all underrepresented.

While low-income students made up nearly 60 percent of the district, only 3.5 percent of the district’s low-income students were identified as gifted. By contrast, more than 11 percent of students not in poverty were considered gifted.

“We have nearly 1,000 kids; it’s hard for me to believe that only 10 of our kids could qualify [as gifted],” said John Mifsud, the coordinator of gifted and talented education at Isabelle Jackson Elementary School, a Title I school in Elk Grove. “Having a parent who can lobby for you to get into GATE shouldn’t be a prerequisite,” he added.

Systemic Approach

Instead of trying to fix achievement gaps school by school, Elk Grove brought all its schools and grade levels together to understand the systemic problems.

Administrators found students who had been identified for gifted programs or participated in accelerated coursework in elementary school often lost their momentum in middle school, particularly if they were from low-income or minority families.

After blowing a whistle, Sandi Peterson, a counselor at Harriet Eddy Middle School in Elk Grove, Calif., points to 14-year-old Shane Mar to draw attention to the fact that Shane donated a Halloween costume for homeless children. Peterson is part of an effort to recognize leadership in identifying gifted students.

That’s not uncommon. Achievement gaps between high-performing black and white students actually grew faster than the gaps between low-achieving black and white students. A study from the University of California, Los Angeles, for example, examined how gaps in math and reading performance changed from kindergarten to 5th grade. The gaps between black and white students who performed well at an early age grew twice as fast as the gaps between their low-performing peers.

“What we see, being immersed in this work, is that there are a lot of great things happening in schools, but unless the district allows for that to become systemic, then that equity won’t be there for everyone,” said Sonjhia Lowery, the director of Elk Grove’s learning-support services.

If the elementary level provides a variety of classes and programs for gifted students, she said, “and then they get to middle school and they can take nothing, what good is all that work?”

The district streamlined its enrollment process and removed course requirements for joining Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, which previously had varied from school to school and had more prerequisites than national programs.

“We tried to encourage kids to join [IB], but there have always been these barriers to participation—applications, prerequisites, meetings with parents—and those things had sorted kids,” said Doug Craig, the principal of Elk Grove’s Laguna Creek High School.

Laguna Creek is now working with its feeder schools Elitha Donner Elementary and Harriet Eddy Middle to build a “pre-IB” program with project-based courses, in both the middle and elementary grades.

The district also is experimenting with ways to identify capable but underperforming students and to ensure they are prepared both academically and psychologically to tackle challenging high school courses. Harriet Eddy Middle, for example, provides 30 minutes of individual tutoring for every student each day, plus a half-hour of social-emotional skills and stress-management lessons each Friday.

“The idea of support for a long time was around kids who weren’t being successful, rather than kids who were ready but not accepting that challenge,” said Alicia Canning, the gifted-programs coordinator for Elk Grove.

“So we’ve had to think about, how do you provide tutoring for kids who went from an A in the general [education] class to a C in the honors class, and supporting them so they can be successful and not want to leave?” she said. “That’s something our schools have been thinking about systemwide.”

Sandi Peterson, a Harriet Eddy counselor, has a personal stake in getting more low-income and minority students into honors courses.

Peterson was told her best bet after high school was “to marry a nice man and get a part-time job,” she said. “I had teachers who told me that, and that’s what has stuck with me.”

Instead, Peterson became the only one of her six siblings to graduate from college, and she now seeks out low-income and minority students who showed promise in elementary grades but who are performing at the average or poorly in middle school.

“I run data reports each year on all the student subgroups coming in, and start finding who has a 2.5 GPA that I can work on,” Peterson said. “I take a look at their history, find who might have had a move, or their parents divorced—I could name a hundred reasons they fell off course, but that helped me find and capture a lot of these students.”

In the past three years, the honors society in Peterson’s school has grown from 37 to 230 students.

Broader Measures of Giftedness

Elk Grove is also working to temper the potential for implicit bias in referrals for gifted education at all levels.

Research has found that teachers are less likely to recommend students for gifted programs when their names have nonstandard spellings or are associated with low-income or specific ethnic groups. A 2015 study in the Journal of Educational Psychology even found that teachers rated students’ academic abilities higher when the students had similar personality traits to the teachers themselves.

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These biases hold even when teachers consciously believe they are recommending students equitably.

Without changing the eligibility criteria for its gifted program, the Broward County, Fla., district more than doubled the number of low-income students and students of color who were identified after 2005. The district simply supplemented its identification system, based on teacher or parent referrals, with a universal screening for all 2nd graders.

The newly identified students “included many students with IQs significantly above the minimum eligibility threshold, implying that even relatively high-ability students from disadvantaged backgrounds were being overlooked under the traditional referral system,” according to economists David Card of the University of California, Berkeley, and Laura Giuliano of the University of Miami, who studied Broward’s initiative.

Last spring, Elk Grove administered the same nonverbal cognitive test to all of its 3rd graders. This fall, the total number of gifted students rose by nearly 100, with higher proportions of low-income, black, and Hispanic students identified as gifted.

The district’s Elitha Donner Elementary School, for example, identified 12 low-income students as gifted this year, up from only three last year, and narrowed the white-black gap in gifted education from 4-to-1 in favor of whites to 2.5-to-1 in the last year alone.

Liz Perry, the coordinator of gifted education at Case Elementary, another Elk Grove district school, said teachers balked when they first saw the students identified by the universal gifted screening.

“Many of the students [identified this year] would never have received an invitation under the old system,” Perry said. “Teachers were like, ‘There’s no way it’s this kid.’ They just weren’t seeing it in the classroom.

“It’s been about changing the mindset about who is a gifted student,” she said, and “knowing who has the potential but needs a little more support going into it.”

Next year, the district will roll out the rest of the changes to the identification system, with teachers and principals developing new rubrics for identifying exceptional creativity and leadership, both in class and in outside activities, such as community volunteering and church youth groups.

In the process, said Michelle Jenkins, Donner Elementary’s principal, teachers are rethinking how they view a student’s potential. “We’re looking at our students differently,” she said. “It’s training your brain that ‘gifted’ is not always your top academic students.”

Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2015 edition of Education Week as Unequal Access to Advanced Classes Targeted


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