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STUDY: Despite Same Test Scores, Whites More Likely Than Blacks to Enter Gifted Student Programs

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new study finds that black students with the same test scores as white students are still less likely to be selected for gifted and talented academic programs in elementary schools.

The findings, gathered by two Vanderbilt University professors, is the latest in a series of reports drawing attention to the achievement gaps between black students and their white and Asian-American peers.

“It is startling that two elementary school students, one black and the other white, with identical math and reading achievement, will have substantially different probabilities of assignment to gifted services,” said Jason Grissom, a co-author of the study, in a press release. “This is especially troubling since previous studies have linked participation in gifted programs to improved academic performance, improvements in student motivation and engagement, less overall stress, and other positive outcomes.”

Grissom and Christopher Redding relied on federal data on 10,000 young students to come to their conclusions that black students are less likely by 66 percent and Hispanic students less likely by 47 percent than white students to be placed in gifted programs.

In their data an average of 5.3% of white students in schools with gifted programs are assigned to gifted programs, compared to 2.2% of Black students, 3.5% of Hispanic students, and 6.2% of Asian students

For black students, the large gap is suggestive of the role non-academic factors play in nurturing student talent. The report’s authors note that even with identical test scores, white students were twice as likely as black students to be selected for gifted programs. In contrast, Grissom and Redding were able to attribute the entire yawn in placement between white and Hispanic students to test scores.

In searching for antidotes to the lower gifted program participation rate for black students, the report’s authors observed that when black students were taught by black teachers, they were more likely to enter the gifted stream at their schools, particularly in reading. But even with a black teacher, the rate of selection to a gifted program is low: 6 percent of black students in their study were predicted to advance to a gifted stream in reading if they were taught a black teacher, while the figure for black students with non-black teachers was 2 percent. The boost from a same-race teacher didn’t occur for Asian American, Hispanic or white students, however, and black students didn’t have a noticeable advantage of advancing to a gifted math stream when taught by a black teacher.

In addition to the racial disparities in being selected for gifted programs, the United States overall lags other countries in the number of students considered advanced in math and reading, according to previous research.

In the most recent The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, high-flying nations like Canada, Finland and Poland had 15 to 17 percent of their students score in the highest rungs on the math assessment; roughly a third of South Korea’s students reached those heights. U.S. students, however, were less likely to perform at the highest level, with just under 9 percent of 15-year-olds in America scoring in the top two levels of achievement.

The United States’ own measurement for gauging how much its students know, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also points to a lower share of students scoring in the upper echelons of reading and math, albeit for a slightly younger set of students: Since 2009, between 8 and 9 percent of eighth graders were considered advanced in math and 4 percent for reading (click on “National Achievement Level Results”).

Leading scholars on talented youth, like Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski, favor early detection of precocious youth, whose skills can be nurtured in ways that benefit society (their research shows a disproportionate number of young students with high standardized test scores go on to work as leading researchers, writers and innovators).

Also worth noting: The racial gap among gifted and talented students may not be as extreme as the gulf between low-income and wealthier kids. “The vast majority of our most talented students come from upper-income, economically secure circumstances,” indicated a 2015 report by scholars from the University of Connecticut and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

That report found that most states are largely unaware of the wealth disparities in their gifted programs and recommended, among other things, that state education leaders measure schools on their ability to recognize gifted students regardless of family income.