Gifted and Talented Programs: What Parents Should Know

Across the country, educators, politicians and activists are debating the value and fairness of gifted and talented education programs, which were created to support K-12 students with advanced abilities who need a more challenging academic program than their peers.

The National Association for Gifted Children defines gifted students as those who “perform — or have the capacity to perform — at higher levels compared to others of the same age, experience, and environment.”

But there is no universal method for deciding who qualifies as gifted, and these programs, sometimes referred to as GATE, have been plagued by racial and economic disparities. Nationwide, white, Asian and higher-income students tend to be overrepresented in gifted programs, while other minority and low-income students are underrepresented.

States and localities generally define not only who qualifies, but also what the programs offer, according to Sarah Irvine Belson, an education professor at American University.

“In general, programs include both enrichment programs, in which students explore an area of the curriculum in more depth or in a more applied way, and acceleration programs, in which students can study areas of the curriculum that are above their chronological age,” Belson wrote in an email.

Some school districts opt to have gifted students attend separate schools or classrooms, while others provide the enrichment in their home schools as an add-on to traditional studies.

Despite the variability, statistics show that racial disparities are widespread. For example, in the 2017-18 school year, white students were 48% of the public school population, according to NCES data, but made up roughly 58% of those in GATE programs, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Education. Black students represented 15% of the overall student population but only 8% of students in gifted education.

“My research has documented very stark inequities in placement into GATE by both race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status,” Jason Grissom, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University, wrote in an email. “Importantly, this research also illustrates that the underrepresentation of students of color or low-income students in GATE is not driven by group-level differences in academic achievement. Black students and low-income students with similar math and reading scores are much less likely than white or high-income students to be placed in gifted services.”

He adds: “The identification systems that we have do not appear to work very well.”

[READ: Is a ‘Lab School’ Right for Your Child?]

How Students Are Identified as Gifted

The selection process for gifted and talented programs varies by district.

Some schools rely on teacher or parent referrals for testing and placement. But multiple studies have shown that teacher referrals can be biased. And relying on parent referrals can disadvantage students whose parents are less able or willing to advocate for them.

Other districts, like Montgomery Country, Maryland, offer universal testing of all public school children, a practice that one study found increases the representation of low-income and Black and Hispanic students in gifted programs. But that process, too, has been criticized.

In New York City, for example, activists have decried a selection process that has relied on a single test of 4-year-olds before they enter kindergarten. Critics say this favors well-to-do families who pay for test preparation services, and has led to an overrepresentation of white and Asian students.

An analysis from the city’s Independent Budget Office found that, in the 2018-19 school year, about one-third of public school kindergartners were white and Asian, but they made up almost three-quarters of that year’s gifted and talented cohort.

The city has announced that it will scrap the test after this year.

The Future of Gifted Education

In response to the concerns over racial disparities, some districts have proposed eliminating gifted and talented programs altogether, replacing them with enrichment programs for all students.

Former New York City mayor Bill De Blasio caused an uproar last year when he unveiled a plan to do just that. Seattle’s NAACP chapter has called for abolishing the city’s gifted program, with one official from the organization calling it “inherently racist.”

But proponents say that there are real benefits from GATE and school districts can ensure a more inclusive process without abolishing the programs altogether.

Colin Seale, a former math teacher whose company thinkLaw develops enrichment curricula, says students who are exceptionally gifted have special needs, which GATE programs are meant to address. Advanced students can fall through the cracks and struggle to reach their potential without additional support.

“A lot of people confuse gifted and high-achieving,” he says. “Just because your kid is gifted doesn’t mean your kid will be high-achieving.”

Some students eligible for GATE are what is known as “twice exceptional,” or capable of advanced learning while also having learning differences, such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorder or dyslexia.

[READ: The Pros and Cons of Single-Gender Schools.]

Addressing Racial Disparities

Experts say there are many ways school districts can address inequities in how students are placed in gifted and talented programs.

“First, we can remove adult discretion at the beginning of the pathway by eliminating referrals and screening, or (by) considering every student,” says Grissom. Second, “we can ensure that we use assessments that are unbiased and tuned to uncover giftedness, regardless of student background.”

Seale says school systems should use local norms at the individual school level to ensure children attending economically disadvantaged schools have the same opportunities for enrichment as their peers in wealthier neighborhoods. He suggests that students who score in the top 10% of their school could be placed in gifted programs.

“These kids are going to be in the top 10% at their school, whether we decide to nurture that or not,” he says.

Is Gifted Education Right for Your Child?

Belson says that, while GATE programs offer many benefits to students, they may not be right for every child who qualifies. She says parents should consider not just whether a program is academically appropriate for their child but also whether it is a good fit for the child culturally and emotionally.

“Some children may experience poor academic or social self-esteem, given the perceived or real competitiveness within the program,” she says. That can lead to unnecessary stress. “Parents should ensure the educators who facilitate (gifted and talented) programs understand both the content as well as the social and emotional needs of the students in the program,” she adds.

Seale agrees, and says families should not be discouraged if a child is tested but doesn’t make the cut.

“It’s not a death sentence if you’re not gifted, and it’s not the golden goose if you are,” he says.

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