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NYC plans to test 4-year-olds for ‘gifted’ admission this year, but de Blasio promises reforms

Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to gather public feedback about the city’s gifted and talented programs and announcing reforms by this summer.
Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

New York City plans to administer in-person tests to 4-year-olds this April to determine entrance into coveted gifted and talented programs, though some members of the board approving school contracts are threatening to vote against the $1.7 million deal.

Regardless, Mayor Bill de Blasio said it would be the last year the test is given, launching what is sure to be a contentious battle over the future of the gifted program in the mayor’s last year in office — and likely punting the issue to the city’s next leader.

New York City is one of the only places in the nation that grants admission to gifted programs based on a test given to toddlers before they enter kindergarten. Giving the in-person test amid a pandemic not only raises questions about health and safety, but raises concerns at a time where racial and economic disparities have only widened.

Families would receive their child’s score in the summer to see if they’re eligible for the 100 Gifted and Talented programs across the five boroughs. There are about 2,500 kindergarten seats in gifted classrooms. About 15,000 apply for spots, out of about 65,000 rising kindergarteners.

The program was created largely as a way to keep white and more affluent families in the school system, and its demographics do not reflect the city as a whole. At 43%, the largest share of kindergartners in the program are Asian. (Asian students are also vastly overrepresented among those who have chosen to learn remotely full time as the pandemic still grips the city.)

Black and Latino students are dramatically underrepresented — making up almost 60% of all kindergartners, but only 14% of enrollment in gifted classrooms. In some schools with gifted programs, their general education classrooms are overwhelmingly Black and Latino, raising questions about segregation and equity within the same building.

The city’s announcement is already attracting heated debate, both among those families who support the program and those who have long been calling for its dissolution in the current form.

The contract to administer the exam is expected to come on Jan. 27 before the Panel for Educational Policy, which approves city contracts. Some members of the citywide panel, made mostly of political appointees, have said publicly they will vote the contract down — an unusual move for a body that in the past has largely been seen as a rubber stamp. Nine of the members are selected by the mayor.

“To perpetuate a system that continues to disenfranchise students that are now also struggling with the impacts of COVID on the lives of their families is morally wrong,” said panel member Tom Sheppard, who said he would vote “no” on the contract. “The [department of education] needs to bring the panel a policy that promotes equity for our students, including our accelerated learners, while not disenfranchising entire sections of the population.”

De Blasio criticized the admissions test as “not something I believe in,” but has left it intact throughout his two terms in office. After stalling on a decision about how admissions would work for the next admissions cycle, almost a year into the health crisis, he said the test would be given this year because “a lot of families had already prepared.”

“They were counting on the opportunity,” he said. “We respect that.”

The mayor also said that the city needs to engage with the community to decide the way forward. He previously promised such a public conversation, after an advisory group he appointed recommended phasing out gifted programs nearly two years ago. But de Blasio has largely sidestepped the issue since then. Now, the mayor said he was presenting a “clear timeline” for coming to a decision.

“From this point through to the end of the summer, we’ll go through that engagement process for a new vision, and we’ll have that formula by September, and then we’ll act on it in September,” he said.

Debate has raged for years over reforming gifted programs. Some parents have lobbied fiercely to keep the current admissions system in place and expanding the number of schools offering the program. But there has also been broad agreement across the political spectrum for no longer relying on a single exam given at such a young age.

“Thousands of families have prepared their children for G&T this year, and it’s fair to maintain that opportunity for them. Going forward, it also makes sense to evaluate and consider improvements to the system,” said John Liu, a Queens state senator, who has been a staunch supporter of the city’s Specialized High School Admissions Test, which grants entry to eight of the top high schools.

The fight over gifted programs has some parallels to the debate over specialized high schools, since both enroll mostly Asian students, many of them low-income, whose families see these opportunities as paving the way to selective schools and colleges. The mayor, who also tried to reform the specialized high school admissions process, acknowledged he made a “mistake” in rolling out proposed changes without soliciting feedback.

“We’ve learned from times when we did things well, in terms of that engagement. We’ve learned from times we didn’t do that engagement well enough,” de Blasio said. “And, certainly, with specialized high schools, we did not. That was our mistake.”

A committee appointed by de Blasio to bolster school diversity called for phasing out gifted programs in their current form, and instead giving support to school districts to come up with more inclusive enrichment opportunities that reach more students. Some academics have argued for schoolwide enrichment models, which cater to individual student interests, in their place.

Lori Podvesker, a mayoral appointee on the Panel for Educational Policy, said she would oppose the contract to administer the test this year because it would lead to continued segregation in public schools at a moment that racial injustices have been put into stark focus by the pandemic and nationwide demonstrations.

“We can no longer go on doing things the way we’ve done them, and this would just continue structural racism,” she said. “The whole system is ripe for radical change. It long has been this way, but the pandemic has triggered an opportunity for those radical changes to happen.”

Shannon Waite, another mayoral appointee on the panel, said she approved an extension of the testing contract last year because education department officials asked for more time to come up with alternatives. This time around, she said the disparities laid bare by COVID and demands for racial justice are compelling her vote against the contract.

“These programs were created to separate Black and brown communities from white communities in this city. I’m not going to continue to play that game,” she said.

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