First Person

Voices: "Gifted and talented" disparities in DPS

Inspired by a recent article in the New York Times, Alexander Ooms says it’s time to examine the real reasons for disparities within Denver’s gifted and talented program.

There was a terrific article a few weeks back in the New York Times about the demographic imbalance in the gifted and talented programs within the public school system in New York City. The school system serves primarily students of color. The gifted and talented programs serve a disproportionate percentage of white students. The only classrooms in many schools that have a majority of white students are those that host gifted and talented programs.

Students work together on math skills in Patrick McDonald's first-grade class at Polaris.
Students work together on math skills in Patrick McDonald’s first-grade class at Polaris, a school for gifted kids. <em>EdNews </em>file photo

The piece included a brief and helpful summary of programs:

The idea of gifted education has drifted in and out of vogue in American schools. It was elevated in the 1950s when educators and lawmakers pushed gifted programs in math and science amid fears about communism’s rise. It waned in the 1960s but re-emerged with a White House task force on giftedness and the signing of several federal bills in the 1970s that recognized gifted children’s needs.

Urban districts were seen as using the programs to help prevent white flight from the schools, in essence offering a system within the system that was white-majority and focused on achievement.

“There have been claims that gifted education resegregates the public schools,” James H. Borland, a professor of education at Teachers College, said in the article.

Reading the article, I wondered if Denver looks any different. It’s not too hard to get a quick read on the data – the Colorado Department of Education lists four categories of gifted and talented: language arts, math, both language and math and other (these categories are exclusive). For simplicity, I combined all four into a single category of gifted and talented, and ran the numbers for Denver.

First some quick context. The National Association for Gifted Children estimates that about 6 percent of the total population is academically gifted. Now note first that the 6 percent estimate is for a national population, which is significantly different than an urban school district like DPS, where roughly 72 percent of students qualify for free and reduced meals – a basic indication of poverty.

Gifted and talented data in Denver

So what did the DPS gifted population look like in 2012 (data from CDE’s Data Lab)? Out of a total population of 43,638 kids in grades 3-10:

  • Fully 19.1 percent meet some sort of gifted and talented classification. This is three times greater than the 6 percent national estimate of gifted kids and in a more challenging demographic population.
  • By income: 13 percent of low-income kids in Denver are labeled gifted and talented, while 35 percent of students who don’t qualify for free and reduced price lunch are in talented and gifted programs. In other words, more than one in every three kids not in poverty in DPS is classified as gifted and talented.
  • By race: Looking at just black, Hispanic and white students (93 percent of the sample), the gifted and talented classification includes 10 percent of all black students, 14 percent of of all Hispanic students and 40 percent of all white students. White students are thus four times as likely as black students to be classified as gifted and talented, and almost three times as likely as Hispanic students to be classified as gifted and talented.
  • By both race and income: For low-income students, approximate* gifted and talented percentages are 9 percent of black kids, 13 percent of Hispanic kids and 21 percent of white kids. For students who do not receive meal assistance, approximate gifted and talented percentages are 15 percent of black kids, 25 percent of Hispanic kids and 45 percent of white kids. Low-income white kids are roughly twice as likely as low-income children of color to be classified as gifted and talented.

This is somewhat rough data, and clearly there is a lot more that should be done in a complete analysis. It would be interesting to look at the kids classified as highly gifted and talented compared to simply “regular” gifted and talented – but frankly I think the division into high and low gifted and talented populations is itself compelling evidence of a system that segregates kids from the general population for reasons beyond sheer intellectual promise.

It’s my guess that these numbers are directionally correct, and moreover that aggregating the data across the district probably lessens an even sharper discrepancy at many specific schools. I’ve written before about the segregation in selective admissions schools, but I think the disparity within gifted and talented programs is far more pronounced.

With nearly one in five of all DPS students somehow classified as gifted and talented it seems pretty obvious that other criteria are at play. Unfortunately it probably also means that the roughly 6 percent of kids who are truly gifted and talented – the true focus of gifted and talented programs – are probably not being served as well as they should be.

But the gifted and talented system is imbalanced. Currently, just short of half of students who don’t qualify for free and reduced price lunch meet some gifted and talented classification. And almost unbelievably, there is a higher percentage of low-income white kids (21 percent) who are labeled gifted and talented than the percentage of non low-income black kids (15 percent), so there is more going on here than just a correlation between poverty and gifted and talented admissions.

Gifted programs serving white middle class families

The Times story notes that the evidence seems to suggest that many gifted and talented programs, whatever their intentions, are now both geared toward and predominantly serving white middle-class families, and that this is an institutional and deeply-rooted issue within the public school system in many cities. It’s easy to read this claim about other places, but this story seems as much a part of the Denver landscape as anywhere else.

Many people may ascribe all sorts of malicious tendencies here – it’s not clear to me that this is true. But I do believe that, particularly over time, most benefits accrue to people who have resources to advocate for them, and these tend to reinforce themselves. This trend can become far worse in a large centralized system that is hard to change.

But whatever the origin or rationale, these numbers tell me that there needs to be a far deeper discussion about the purpose and process for gifted and talented programs in Denver. That dialogue will make lots of people uncomfortable – but hopefully less so than a hard look at the mirror in the data above, which is deeply unsettling.

Author notes: *At this level of specificity, there are some gifted and talented categories where the number of students is less than 16, and thus not recorded in CDE data, so the percentages may be slightly underrepresented. These categories are: black free and reduced price lunch, white free and reduced price lunch and black students who don’t qualify for free and reduced price lunch. And, I use math N (number of subjects in the sample) count data. There are occasional differences between the N counts for math, reading and writing, but these are unlikely to make any changes in the percentages.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.