Gifted and Talented Education Programs Turn the Lights Out on Non-White Students

"Race is the greatest predictor of who succeeds and fails in American public education"

Illustration by Jason Stout / Getty Images

When Yasmine Smith was in elementary school, her teachers planned to refer her to the special education coordinator. Her mother fought – against much resistance from leaders at the school and at the district – to instead have her tested for gifted and talented services. She suspected the work being presented to her daughter was not too challenging, but rather not challenging enough, leading to Yasmine's boredom and frustration in class.

Yasmine's mother was right. Smith excelled in the gifted and talented program and went on to graduate from UT Law. Had it not been for what she describes as "pure luck," she believes the low expectations projected onto her by educators could have led to a dramatically different outcome.

Chairmain Mackson had to move her family to a different school district altogether to get her child tested for GT services; the principal of his Austin ISD campus declined to test him, citing a prior diagnosis with attention deficit hyperactivity dis­or­der. As with Yasmine Smith, Mackson thinks the diagnosis reflected her son's boredom in the classroom. "My son was already labeled a problem child in kindergarten," she said. "They would call me almost every week, like he was a problem child. I said 'He's coming in reading [already]; you can't give him words like cat, rat.'"

The family moved into Manor ISD, where Mackson's son's new teacher called her before she even had a chance to request testing, saying her son exhibited signs of giftedness. He scored off the charts and was immediately moved into the gifted and talented program.

"A Lot of Bias and Racism"

Celeste Sodergren, the coordinator of Continuous Improvement and head of the Gifted and Talented program for Manor ISD, said the signs of giftedness and the signs of a learning disability, particularly ADHD, often look similar to those who aren't trained to recognize the difference. For example, a child who gets really excited – overexcited, in an adult's eyes – to learn in-depth about a particular subject like "history, or even baseball stats," said Sodergren, can be exhibiting gifted behavior.

"A psychomotor overexcitability looks a lot like ADHD," said Sodergren. "While most people expect gifted kids to sit still and make straight A's, sometimes your gifted kids aren't doing that, because they have overexcitability. A lot of our kiddos across the country get overdiagnosed with things they don't have. If you take that kid and put them somewhere else and they thrive, it's not a learning disability."

Decades of research have found that black students in particular are impacted by the tendency to overdiagnose learning disabilities and underestimate the prospect of their being gifted. The data reflects similarly – though not as starkly – for Hispanic students. Some parents question the value of the GT label for students who already know their own capabilities, especially when schools aren't really able to do much more to stimulate them than via the regular curriculum. But evidence shows that students labeled as needing special education services are less likely to go to college – even though that label also reflects adults' expectations as much as young people's actual abilities.

“Race is the greatest predictor of who succeeds and fails in American public education.” – Bavu Blakes

"I think there's a lot of bias and racism embedded into the whole framework," said Bavu Blakes, a former teacher and current Cul­tur­al Proficiency and Inclus­iveness spec­ialist at AISD. He references the Texas Education Agency accountability data – campus and district report cards – that continue to rank schools highly even when they make little or no progress closing achievement gaps between white students and those of color. "Even the state has lower expectations ... Some racial groups are expected to achieve half of what other racial groups are, and that's considered successful."

A recent study out of Vanderbilt Univer­sity and the University of Florida suggests that socioeconomic status is a primary determinant of who is identified as gifted and talented, finding the greatest disparities not between schools, but within the same school. But many districts fail to disaggregate data on both race and income levels; much of the data available suggests race, and not income, is the single greatest determining factor in which kids in a mixed environment get identified as gifted, and which do not.

"Race is the greatest predictor of who succeeds and fails in American public education," said Blakes. He cites data from the College Board, which administers the SAT, showing that black students whose families make $140K-$160K per year still tend to attain lower scores on that test on average than white students whose families made less than $20K per year.

"Everyone's at the mercy of the test," he said. "There are some students who are clearly advanced, but may not be [identified as gifted] because of the test barrier." And, said Blakes, if students or parents don't have the knowledge or resources to advocate on their own behalf – which could result in disciplinary actions for students whose self-advocacy educators consider disrespectful – the children are still left out.

"Gifted Looks Different"

Research involving the perceptions of teachers has found generally lower expectations of black students than of white students around academic achievement and college degree attainment. In a 2002 study, a group of teachers expected 58% of white students and 37% of black students within the same cohort to obtain a four-year degree. When these results were broken down by the teachers' own race, black teachers were 9% more likely to say a black student would obtain a college degree than did white counter­parts evaluating the same student.

Chairmain Mackson (Photo by John Anderson)
Gifted students “will advocate for themselves, and sometimes teachers see that as disrespectful.” – Chairmain Mackson

In many cases, "[gifted] students will advocate for themselves, and sometimes teachers see that as disrespectful," Mack­son said. Cultural differences in communication and self-expression might lead teachers to overidentify black students as aggressive or detached from the class, rather than eager to learn or advocating for themselves. Research suggests that teacher biases and district hiring practices – in terms of explicit attention to hiring teachers who look like the students they're serving – also play a part in not only student identification but student success.

"One of the things we ask our teachers to look for is ... cultural differences that our students have from you, because what you expect is what you grew up with," Sodergren said. A 25-year-old white woman might expect students to act the way she and the other kids in her neighborhood did growing up, and other students who behave differently are viewed as disrespectful. "But for some students who come from a different culture, they consider respect to be able to speak your mind to an adult. And there are other students who would never look an adult in the eye," she said. "Those kinds of things often get kids on the wrong path to misdiagnosis and not into the gifted classes they should be in."

Some districts are working to help their teachers bridge these cultural competency gaps. "Gifted looks different in different populations – we're trying to make sure our teachers are trained to look for giftedness to manifest in ways that they're not used to," said Raine Maggio, who serves as Round Rock ISD's GT coordinator, and who was recognized as the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented's "Administrator of the Year" in 2018 for her focus on equity in her program.

Maggio cites an example: "One that always stands out to me is that ... the general consensus is giftedness means 'high vocabulary.' And everybody always looks at that as high academic vocabulary. And in poverty, it might be that [students] are really good storytellers." That ability "might not translate [on] writing or vocabulary [tests], but the words they're choosing and the gestures they're using and the way they tell those stories is an indicator of giftedness." She added that humor, and an ability to grasp irony and sarcasm, are also good indicators of giftedness.

In her district, Maggio has focused on training GT coordinators at each elementary school on some of these differences in the ways giftedness manifests, and then worked to deploy them to educate classroom teachers. The hope is to "get to them earlier to start providing services, because early intervention is important," she said.

Round Rock ISD has removed achievement testing in grades K-2 as a measure of identifying giftedness, because of the biases Maggio said can be built into standardized testing as a whole. "We focus more on aptitude instead of achievement in those early grades, so that you're not penalized for not being exposed to things," she said.

Manor ISD has gone a step even further. The mostly low-income and majority-minority district, with at least 46 languages spoken at home by its students and families, has not only implemented GT screening for all students in second grade, but does so with a nonverbal universal test, to eliminate any vocabulary or language barriers that might prevent children from being diagnosed as gifted.

"This helps us identify kids who maybe don't have the language ability, but certainly have the cognitive ability to achieve," Sodergren said. All of the district's teachers, not just the GT coordinators, undergo 30 hours of training to identify signs of giftedness in all students. Anyone can nominate any student for testing at any time, not just in second grade – and no student is turned away. If a parent or teacher requests it, the student is screened.

Many districts, including Round Rock, have begun to create more latitude for campus-level control of inclusion criteria, which may include interviews or other data to supplement test results. "The state's guidelines are pretty broad. District to district, you have a lot of latitude in how you identify your [GT] kids and how you serve them," Maggio said. "Some might be academic, some might be more creative, some are leadership-based."

Who Succeeds and Who Fails

However, some parents say these attempts to broaden opportunities for gifted students have actually narrowed them further. Students who might be identified as gifted at one school may not qualify at a neighboring school. There are also lingering concerns about who is interviewing the children – whether they are a culturally diverse group trained in recognizing potential biases. "There is no way you can tell me these subjective factors around GT are fair," said Donald Scott, a parent in Pflugerville ISD.

Donald Scott (Photo by John Anderson)
“There is no way you can tell me these subjective factors around GT are fair.” – Donald Scott

Parents express concern that, even after being identified as gifted and talented, their children still are not engaged enough by regular classroom content. "Usually the classroom environment is centered around the average child," Blakes said, adding that he and his wife have "had to be very active and advocate" for his son's school to keep its promises to find ways to challenge him in the context of his normal math and reading classes. "Some teachers are great at differentiation, and some see it as more difficult, or kind of a nuisance."

Sodergren said there is still among some educators an idea of "gifted elitism" – thinking, "We don't need to serve these kiddos; they're smart, so they'll be fine." But she said the long-term effects of not serving gifted students will often include increased risk for depression and suicidal thoughts. "They're more sensitive to their environments at large," she said, and "if we don't acknowledge that and serve that, what we do is doom these kids to a miserable school existence."

It's important for parents to advocate for their children, even when school officials are not trained to recognize the kind of advocacy those children need. But it can be difficult, especially for parents who don't know the process or even recognize the signs themselves. Blakes recognizes greatly the privilege he has as an educator and an active member of the local community. The parents interviewed for this article have actively and continuously advocated for their children's inclusion in GT programs; nearly all of them expressed concern for parents who don't know the process or don't have the time.

"What I wonder is, if you don't have a professional advocate in your corner or someone who has the time, how many [kids] never get qualified for the services, how many students sit there being nice and don't learn anything all year? ... It always makes me wonder about the child with my son's ability who doesn't have my son's parents," Blakes said.

Scott, who recently moved his family from Lake Travis ISD to Pflugerville ISD, has been frustrated about the lack of information available to parents about how to nominate for GT services those students who may have missed automatic testing in early grades. Across eight Austin-area districts, nomination and testing procedures vary widely, as does the availability and accessibility of information about the process on the district websites.

"The information is not distributed to everybody; it's only given out to people who know where to look," said Scott. "Once you start talking about extra things a parent has to do [to get their child nominated for testing], you're filtering people out."

Ultimately, said Blakes, there is still much more work to do to ensure that educational systems created to exclude children of color can be engineered to do the reverse. We need to do better, he says, at ensuring "students get what they need, so there's not a predictable model of who succeeds and who fails."

Who's Being Left Behind: GT Equity in Central Texas Schools

Across eight Austin-area school districts, nomination and testing procedures for Gifted and Talented services vary widely, as does the availability and accessibility of information about the process on the district websites. The data shown here – from a dataset administered by the U.S. Department of Educa­tion's Office of Civil Rights, as analyzed by ProPublica – shows how black and Hispanic students' partici­pa­tion in Gifted and Talented programs lags behind their overall share of a district's population, even in districts where the majority of students are non-white/non-Anglo and/or economically disadvantaged.

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