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Underrepresentation of African American Students in Gifted Programs

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June 02, 2016 02:14 pm

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I remember the heart-sinking moment of being removed from gifted classes during my transition to high school after having been a high-achieving elementary and middle school student in Baltimore County, Maryland. As an African American student who previously faced poverty and a host of other issues, being “gifted” was part of my identity. Even though gifted classes were available at the high school I attended, no one from the school district consulted me before my transition into lower-tracked classes.

According to the Baltimore County Public Schools’s “Gifted and Talented Education Parent Guide,” “Students are referred for gifted and talented education by those having firsthand knowledge of the student’s performance or potential including parents, teachers, counselors, peers, community members, subject area experts and even students themselves at the secondary level.”

Nationwide, approximately 3 million to 5 million students enroll in gifted programs, according to the National Association for Gifted Children. The positive effects of a student participating in a gifted program include improved academic performance, improvements in student motivation and engagement, and less overall stress. Unfortunately, some African American students miss out on these benefits due to racial disparities in the representation of students in gifted-and-talented programs.

In 2012, only 9 percent of all students in gifted-and-talented programs were African American even though African American students represented 15 percent of the population in schools that offered such programs. These disparities contribute to within-school segregation of students on the basis of race and ethnicity and perpetuate the idea that African American students are “cognitively inferior.”

A recent study by Jason Grissom, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, and Christopher Redding, a Peabody doctoral candidate, shows a white student is twice as likely as an African American student to get assigned to a gifted-and-talented program even when both students achieve the same math and reading scores. Some districts assign students to gifted-and-talented programs based solely on test scores while others use teacher recommendations or employ a mix of the two.

According to Grissom and Redding, disparities in representation exist because African American students are recommended for gifted programs at higher rates when they have African American teachers, and this is not an often occurrence. Only 4.4 percent of secondary school teachers are African American and these teachers are three times more likely to identify African American students as gifted in reading compared to non-African American teachers, according to the study.

The reason African American teachers select African American students for gifted programs more frequently is because, “What a teacher may attribute to precocity for one student may be considered disruptive behavior in another,” write Grissom and Redding in their study. Similarly, African American parents might feel more comfortable advocating for their child being selected for gifted programs if there is an African American teacher or African American students may be more likely to display gifted qualities if they have an African American teacher, suggests Jose Vilson, a middle school math teacher and author of the book This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education, in a segment for NPR.

Universal screening is one solution to increasing the number of African American students in gifted programs. In 2005, Broward County, Florida, adopted universal screening and the number of African American students in gifted programs increased by 80 percent. Other remedies, recommended by Grissom and Redding, include increasing diversity among teachers along with improving teacher training address tacit biases and raise awareness about prejudices and stereotypes.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that African American students are less likely to graduate from high school compared to their white, Latino, and Asian classmates. My enrollment in gifted classes gave me hope that I already had begun beating statistics. Now, as a soon-to-be college graduate, I believe this hope contributed to my success in both secondary and postsecondary education. Although I was placed in lower-tracked classes and rarely encountered African American teachers, I began to sign up for Advanced Placement classes as a way to challenge myself. But some students may not feel as comfortable as I did challenging low expectations; therefore, educators must ensure they provide challenging academic opportunities to all students.

Brionna Lomax is a former policy and advocacy intern at the Alliance.

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