Analyzing Racial Bias in Selecting Students for Gifted Classes

Gifted programs in U.S. schools help many students find the sort of academic success that opens the door to opportunities later in life. A recent Vanderbilt University study explores the depths of inequality in the assignment of black students to gifted programs. The authors utilize data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study to examine how factors such as students’ race, socioeconomic status, academic performance, and teachers’ race impact African-American participation in programs for gifted students. The authors find that black students are assigned to such programs at disproportionately low rates when compared to white and Asian students — even after controlling for factors that may contribute to an achievement gap such as gender, socioeconomic status, health, and age.

To better understand this underrepresentation of black students, the authors observe the ways in which a teacher’s race may impact the assignment of black youth to programs for gifted students. They find that non-black teachers are less likely to identify gifted black students as such. In fact, black students with black teachers are three times more likely to be assigned to gifted programs than black students with non-black teachers.

A variety of factors may influence this disparity in assignment, including implicit biases that lead non-black teachers to believe that black students are less gifted than similar non-black students, differences in students’ behavior based on the race of their teacher, or a greater willingness of parents to request gifted testing from teachers of the same race. Regardless of the specific cause, only 20 percent of black elementary school students are taught by black teachers. As a result, this limited access to gifted programs affects a significant number of black students.

One potential solution to this problem is for schools to make a deliberate and meaningful effort to hire more black teachers in order to reflect the demographics of student populations. However, it is similarly important to address biases present within the current structure. While school districts work to hire more black teachers, there are some steps that they can take to improve equity in assigning students to gifted programs. First, districts should implement universal testing for all such programs in order to reduce the subjectivity of teacher recommendations as a prerequisite. Second, schools should reassess their definition of “giftedness,” as well as the criteria for placement in programs for gifted students.

Students who do not test well or have lost interest in classroom activities as a result of feeling unchallenged can be easily overlooked for the very programs that could help them succeed. Therefore, recommendations for placement into gifted programs should be based on a broad assessment of teacher recommendations, testing, and parental input. The study indicates that schools must ensure that a program and its selection criteria reflect the diverse culture and talents of every student in order to widen the pool of qualified gifted students who can benefit from rigorous academic programs.

The authors find that reducing the subjectivity of teacher recommendations and expanding the definition of “giftedness” could help to close this gap. However, more research is needed in order to uncover the ways in which school districts contribute to biases against black students. This is especially important because these biases also create other negative outcomes for black students, such as more frequent and severe disciplinary action. To prepare all students for future success, education must be equitable and accessible, beginning with building on the talents and abilities of all students.

Article source: Grissom, Jason, and Redding, Christopher. “Discretion and Disproportionality: Explaining the Underrepresentation of High-Achieving Students of Color in Gifted Programs.” American Educational Research Association 2(1) (2016): 1-25.

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Anne Gunderson
Engineer turned policymaker. Detroiter turned Chicagoan.

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