How Can You Really Tell Which Children Are Gifted?

The state of the universe.
March 13 2013 8:15 AM

Who Should Be in the Gifted Program?

New York, D.C., and other cities experiment with making honors classes more inclusive.

Students arriving at school
Students arriving at school

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Starting in second grade, I took a school bus from my middle-class neighborhood to downtown Louisville, Ky., where my grade school was surrounded by public housing projects, as part of an effort to desegregate schools. The year I started there, I was identified as “gifted” and put in a separate, accelerated class, where my classmates were mostly other white boys and girls from the suburbs.

In 1975, the school system in Louisville had launched the district-wide “Advance Program,” which offered an enriched curriculum, just as the desegregation plan went into effect. All Louisville schools were required to have a mix of black and white students so that the number of black students never fell below or rose above a certain cutoff. (It varied over the years, but the range was around 20 to 40 percent.) In the Advance Program, however, the rules didn’t apply because classroom assignments within schools were exempt. The percentage of black students in the gifted program was 11 percent.

I had the choice to leave the school in fourth grade, as did my suburban peers, but most of us stayed at our inner city school because our parents liked the program so much. From second grade until my senior year in high school, my classes never had more than two black students at a time.


I would like to think that I’m smart, but it’s also clear that economic privilege and racial prejudice had as much—if not more—to do with admission to the Advance Program as intelligence. In the course of a lawsuit brought by black families against the school district in the 1990s, the school district was required to produce data from the program. The numbers showed that black students in Louisville who took the Advance Program admission test were much less likely to be recommended to join the program than white children, even if they scored in the top percentile. In fact, more than two-thirds of black middle- and high-school students who did well on the tests were denied entrance to the program by the teachers and counselors who made the final determinations, while only a third of white kids were rejected.

Gifted and talented programs have been the target of criticism ever since the concept took hold in the 1970s as huge demographic changes were transforming urban school districts. White, middle-class families were fleeing to the suburbs. Like magnet schools, accelerated programs for gifted students were attractive to many of these families and provided a way to counteract this flight and maintain diversity in city school systems. The problem was that gifted programs tended to foster racial separation inside schools, undermining the very goal they were supposed to support.

Today, gifted programs still tend to separate students by race. New York City is a case in point. There, the education department has been struggling for years to change the demographic makeup of its gifted program—which is disproportionately white and Asian—and spread access to a more representative group of students. There are a handful of open-enrollment gifted schools in the city, but the district’s efforts at increasing diversity in the bulk of gifted and talented classrooms have largely backfired.

In 2006, a quarter of students in New York City gifted classrooms were white, although white students made up only 15 percent of the student population. The district attempted to level the playing field by eliminating a subjective system in which teachers and preschools played a major role in deciding which students were identified as gifted. From then on, students across the city would have to take the same two tests. Decisions about who made it in would be centralized. The hope was that using more objective measures would expand access and prevent in-the-know parents from gaming the system.

But relying on tests produced the opposite effect. Middle-class parents frantically prepped their 4-year-olds for testing. This year, 70 percent of students identified as gifted in the city are white or Asian, up from 68 percent last year, while just over a quarter are black or Hispanic.

In 2006, before it changed the admissions system, New York City opened 15 new gifted and talented programs to serve more minority children, bringing the number of schools with the programs to more than 200, according to officials at the time. By 2009, many of those programs had been shuttered. There were only about 140 schools with gifted classrooms that year. This year, there are just 88. The neighborhoods that lost gifted and talented programs tended to be those with high concentrations of blacks and Hispanics: Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York, Flatbush, Washington Heights.

Asked about the changes, department officials said they have actually increased the number of gifted and talented seats in recent years to meet growing demand. Given the decrease in the number of schools offering the program and the declining percentage of minorities in the program, it follows that the new seats are probably concentrated in just a few schools, many of them in affluent areas. So the question is, should they keep expanding the program? As a recent New York Times article noted, “The accelerated classrooms serve as pipelines to the city’s highest-achievement middle schools and high schools, creating a cycle in which students who start out ahead get even further advantages from the city’s schools.” In the D.C. suburbs and other places, gifted and talented programs have the same dynamic.