Talented and gifted school programs have a well-earned reputation for lacking student diversity. Nationally, as of the 2017–2018 school year, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students were significantly underrepresented in gifted education by 45 percent, 23 percent, and 24 percent, respectively. However, some hope emerges from new research that shows there are thousands of U.S. schools that do identify students of color at far higher rates than represented in their overall student populations. In these most successful schools, students of color are 200 percent as represented. Equitable identification for gifted services is not yet the norm, but it does exist in schools across the country.
As part of a recent research study funded by the American Institutes for Research, we explored the characteristics and gifted identification rates for nearly every school in the country. We looked for two things: 1) access: which schools provide access to gifted and talented services?; and 2) equity: within those schools that do provide access, what predicts higher levels of equity for students who are Black or Hispanic? We looked at the influence of school and district characteristics such as total student enrollment, proportion Black, proportion low-income families, and average socioeconomic status (SES), as well as the effect of state policies regarding gifted services.
We expected these factors to influence whether a school provided access. We didn’t know if they’d matter for equity. Turns out, they do.
Regarding access, schools with higher average achievement are more likely to offer services than those with lower average achievement. The same is true for SES. Being in the top 16 percent of SES nationally means a school is 16 to 18 percentage points more likely to offer services than those in the bottom 16 percent.
In addition to how your school performs and in what neighborhood you live mattering, so do state policies. For example, a school in a state with a mandate to provide services was 24 percentage points more likely to provide that access to those services.
State policies also matter for equity, not just access. State mandates for gifted services were associated with 17 percentage points higher representation for Black students and 14 percentage points higher representation for Hispanic students. Similarly, proactive audits of compliance were associated with 9 percentage points higher representation for Black and 14 percentage points higher representation for Hispanic students. Mandates alone are associated with taking the average school from identifying students of color at a rate of about 25 percent of that which they are represented in their school’s overall population to about 40 percent. They would still be substantially underrepresented, but less so than in states with no mandate.
Importantly, we are not talking about a small handful of schools from one corner of one state. The bucket of “top 5 percent most equitable schools” represents 1,432 schools from across the country for Black students and 1,887 schools for Hispanic students. So while it is essential and critical for the average school to improve the equity of its gifted and talented services, there are thousands of schools in this country that are already there.
Gifted and talented services are meant to nurture the potential of exceptional students, creating a place where they can be challenged at their level of readiness. However, our research found a disheartening reality in many schools across the country: Many Black and Hispanic students don’t even have access to these opportunities at their schools. In some states, not even 10 percent of schools provide access. This not only contributes to a lack of diversity in advanced academic settings, but also perpetuates disparities in educational achievement. The silver lining is that it doesn’t have to remain this way. There are thousands of schools (including in every state) that already buck this trend and identify disproportionately high numbers of students of color for their gifted and talented services.
Perhaps the clearest takeaway from our research is the strong correlation between state policies for gifted services and increased access along with increased equity for students of color. Although far from showing cause and effect, this suggests states with mandates and enforcement are also resulting in higher levels of identification for students of color. This must serve as a giant beacon for policymakers looking for ways to improve opportunities for all advanced learners in their states. And the good news is that they don’t have to start from scratch. With states, districts, and schools already successful, there is ample opportunity to learn from those who already have talent for identifying diverse talent.