High-achieving, Black, elementary school students are much less likely than their White peers to receive assignments to gifted and talented programs in math and reading, according to a new study.
However, the disparities in rates of placement essentially disappear among Black students who have Black teachers.
These are among the findings published last week in AERA Open, a journal of the American Educational Research Association.
The study, conducted by Vanderbilt University researchers, was based on U.S. Department of Education data about more than 10,000 elementary students at public schools with gifted programs. Researchers focused on data collected in kindergarten and first, third and fifth grades, which are the junctures when most gifted students are identified, regardless of race.
Blacks are 66 percent less likely than Whites to be assigned to gifted education services, according to the researchers. No other minority population has the level of disparity as do Blacks.
“It is startling that two elementary school students, one Black and the other White, will have substantially different probabilities of assignment,” said Dr. Jason Grissom, a co-author of the study and a Vanderbilt associate professor of public policy and education. “This is troubling. The persistent effects of conditions outside student control raise serious concerns about whether the education system is providing equitable access to meet the needs of high-achieving students of color.”
The researchers concluded that most factors do not close the Black-White assignment gap. They examined a variety of factors, such as student gender, age, health, socioeconomic status, education of parents, whether the school was urban or suburban, the number of years of experience among teachers, the school’s average test performance and the rate of free- or reduced-price lunch program participation.
What does make a difference, though, is Black students having a same-race teacher, the researchers wrote.
In fact, Blacks are three times more likely to be assigned to gifted programs when they are taught by a Black instructor than a non-Black. The assignment rates for high-achieving Blacks with same-race teachers are similar to those of White students with similar characteristics.
Experts believe participation in gifted education services results in positive outcomes such as improvements in academic performance, motivation and engagement with learning. Because the referral process often begins with a classroom instructor, the latter is a gatekeeper to assignments.
“Reliance on teacher referrals can disadvantage students of color if teachers hold lower expectations for them or are less likely to recognize giftedness in such students,” the researchers wrote. “All U.S. states rely on teacher referrals and input, so teacher perceptions may influence outcomes at numerous points in the process. To the extent that teacher perceptions of students are affected by race or ethnicity, this discretion may lead to unequal treatment. For example, racialized teacher perceptions may lead teachers to misinterpret Black students’ behavior because of different cultural backgrounds. What a teacher may attribute to precocity for one student may be considered disruptive behavior for another.”
Grissom’s co-author for the study was Christopher Redding, a Vanderbilt doctoral candidate who focuses on K-12 educational leadership and policy.
Grissom and Redding found that Hispanic students are 47 percent less likely than Whites to receive assignments to gifted programs. However, they also found that, based on differences in scores from math and reading assessment tests, the racial gap declines significantly.
Meanwhile, controlling for math and reading scores alone does not yield the same effect among Black students. In fact, Blacks with identical, high math and reading achievement as Whites are assigned to gifted programs half as often as Whites.
The racial and ethnic congruence between teachers and students does not play a factor in the rate of gifted assignment for Whites, Hispanics or Asians, the researchers found. Nationally, about 95 percent of White elementary students have White teachers, but only 22 percent of their Black peers have Black teachers. Experts believe this discrepancy may widen as enrollment becomes more diverse. Students of color make up about 43 percent of the public school enrollment, but only about 17 percent of teachers are non-White.
Nonetheless, Grissom and Redding cautioned against blaming the race gap only on White teacher bias. As an example, the availability of gifted and talented services also affects referrals. About 90 percent of Whites attend schools with gifted programs, while only 83 percent of Blacks do.
Furthermore, Black students might behave in ways with teachers of their race that make giftedness easier to identify. Or, Black parents might feel more comfortable reaching out to a Black teacher to suggest that their children be tested for eligibility for gifted programs.
Grissom and Redding suggested implementing universal screening of students along with teacher training to help the latter better recognize high-achievers among diverse populations. They also advocated for additional research to better explain how these gaps continue and to examine the retention rates of minorities in gifted programs.
Meanwhile, policymakers and education leaders don’t need to wait for greater teacher workforce diversity to address the Black-White disparity in gifted assignments, Grissom and Redding wrote, pointing to how special education assignments are currently made, in response to legal challenges.
To help determine special education referrals, school districts around the country have reduced individual teacher discretion by adopting less biased identification and placement systems.
“Similar steps could be taken to formalize the processes for gifted identification,” the researchers wrote. “The process (could) draw upon a variety of sources of student data and ensures that, rather than a single individual making assignment decisions, assignment teams using culturally sensitive assessments are engaged in evaluation.”