AURORA | A decades-old dilemma within the gifted and talented program in Aurora Public Schools may have finally been solved.
After recently analyzing the district’s GT program, administrators discovered that black and Hispanic students were being passed over for consideration far more often than their white and Asian peers.
It’s a problem affecting not just Aurora, but the entire nation, experts say.
A NEW LOOK AT AN OLD PROBLEM
Reacting to the disparity, APS has changed the way it recognizes exceptional students, and now more non-Asian minorities are being tracked toward gifted and talented programs.
A national 2016 study found that black students are three times less likely to get into a GT program than white students. The odds for Hispanic students were only slightly better. Those students were about half as likely to get GT education as whites, the study revealed.
Education researchers refer to this disparity as “racialized tracking.” Students of color are often passed over for educational opportunities and the long-term economic benefits white GT students often get.
Gifted and talented programs aim to identify students who learn differently than their peers or show a discernible aptitude in abilities, talents or potential for accomplishment.
Teachers normally recommend students for consideration for the programs based on test scores or exceptional work and grades. They also often look for less quantifiable behaviors. Teachers say that good candidates for GT programs often lead games on the playground. Students referred for consideration often sail through tasks or lessons while their peers can get frustrated.
The programs themselves are as varied as the students. There are special schools, student groups, targeted classes and more, but they all focus on accelerated learning, specialized curricula and grouping students with similar learning styles.
These programs have been the target of criticism since the 1970s, when the concept gained momentum as demographics changes were altering urban school districts, according to a variety of studies of GT education. White, middle-class families were fleeing to the suburbs as schools became integrated. Programs for gifted students attracted many of these families back to urban schools and provided a way to counteract the deep segregation and maintain diversity.
These same programs, however, began fostering racial separation inside schools, according to researchers. In Aurora and across the nation, the GT classes were predominantly white and Asian.
Now, the programs are often criticized as being more about economic privilege and racial prejudice than intelligence.
Black, Hispanic, low-income students and English-language learners face unique barriers to GT programs that other students do not. Acceptance into GT programs relies on student scores on the Cognitive Abilities Test. The national exam relies heavily on vocabulary skills, which are harder for students whose families haven’t fully learned English, don’t use complex sentences, or use a different vernacular. Black and Hispanic students often face racial bias from teachers, experts say. Research shows that teachers often have a tendency to think black and Hispanic students are less intelligent than their white and Asian counterparts. So they are less likely to recommend them for testing.
Bryan Lindstrom, a Hinkley High School social studies teacher and candidate for the Aurora City Council, said non-white students are disadvantaged by these subconscious biases. Lindstrom said bias coupled with standardized testing that favors white, well-off students probably hurts a black or Hispanic student’s ability to be recognized as an advanced learner.
“It is inherent that your biases will come out,” he said of the process.
APS recognizes it has a history of chronically under-identify black and Hispanic students for the GT program. Before a 2018 pilot program started, Hispanic students comprised 35 percent of all APS GT students. They represent 54 percent of the district population. Black students comprised just 13 percent of GT students. They represent 19 percent of the district population.
That’s compared to white students, who amounted to 37 percent of GT students, but only 15 percent of the district’s student body. Asian students made up 9 percent of those in the program, and only 5 percent of the student body.
A NEW DIRECTION
Aurora Public Schools set out to change this disparity after evaluating the results of the 2015-16 audit. Their goal was to mirror the representation of each demographic group in the GT program with their population in the student body.
They launched into a 10-school pilot program led by University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor Scott Peters, creating new ways to identify potential GT students.
National norms require that a student score at or above the 95th percentile on the CogAT test against all other scores across the country for acceptance into a GT education program.
To identify possible GT contenders, APS teachers gave all students iReady math and language tests. Students qualified for the GT program under either just the national CogAT, both the iReady and CogAT or just the local iReady test.
School officials said that screening identified an immediate increase in the number GT candidates who were black and Hispanic, who scored in the 95th percentile among fellow students.
School district Gifted and Talented Coordinator Carol Dallas told the school board last month that the Colorado Department of Education standard of comparing children in high-poverty neighborhoods to the national student body – not their peers – can lock deserving students out of the program.
Using local norms to identify GT students is generally considered by educators and researchers to be less prejudiced. That’s because students in low-income districts like APS aren’t compared to students in high-income districts whose parents can afford the resources to give their kids an extra edge.
The National Association for Gifted Children encourages states and school districts to use local norms as part of the process of identifying students for GT programs. Board president Sally Krisel said the use of local norms and local eligibility criteria is an advantage over a single, national definition. The decisions about how children are assessed and what should be provided for them are made closest to the children who are affected by those decisions.
Expanding access to the programs doesn’t jeopardize credibility because the function isn’t prestige but rather responding to the academic diversity within a student population.
“The purpose has always been that we recognize that there are children who are performing or show the potential to perform at such an advanced level that they require something beyond the excellent regular curriculum we want for all children,” Krisel said.
Gifted designations do not factor into most college admissions or provide perks other than a more advanced curriculum.
When the district presented their findings to the school board May 28, the pilot had increased identification from 2.57 percent to 5.58 percent in the 10 piloting schools. Black student representation increased by 9 percentage points, and the Hispanic student portion by 8 percentage points. Other groups significantly affected were English Language Learners and female students.
Almost one-fifth of students identified through the pilot program also ended up qualifying for gifted status compared with all U.S. students, suggesting that many students were being passed over for recommendation before the pilot.
The program resounded with Kevin Cox, one of the three black voting members on the APS school board. He said he was “classically underchallenged” in his Houston, Texas schools.
“I picked up a ton of horrible student habits. I skipped school and did what I wanted, made bad grades, because it didn’t matter. I wasn’t feeling challenged in school.”
Dallas said that, despite the program’s success, she wasn’t ready to expand the pilot to the entire district before expanding the sample size of the trial.
She said she wants to be absolutely sure the district is taking the right approach before sending the project district-wide.