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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: We need to rethink gifted and talented education in NC

DTH Photo Illustration. A student views the North Carolina Association for the Gifted&Talented Mission Statement.

Imagine you’re a well-off parent. You want to ensure your child receives a high-quality education and you will employ any means you have to help pave their path to success.  

Your school district offers a screening process that identifies kindergarten through second-grade students who are "gifted." If your child falls into this category, they enter a gifted and talented program, which offers a differentiated curriculum with supplemental instruction in math and reading. 

Imagine you relocate to a higher-income neighborhood that zones you for your county’s top public school. You hire a tutor who teaches your child how to score in the top percentile for their age group on the Cognitive Abilities Test, a standardized assessment for students in Orange County to evaluate how well they complete various readiness activities. 

Unsurprisingly, your efforts pay off and your child is one of the select few identified as academically or intellectually gifted.

While gifted and talented programs may seem like a sound way to give excellent students an upper hand, the system is plagued with racial and socioeconomic inequities. The numbers speak volumes. 

White students are vastly overrepresented in AIG programs. Recent federal data quantifies that while white students constitute half of the overall public school enrollment, they compose 60 percent of AIG education nationwide. Comparatively, Black students make up only 9 percent of students in gifted education, despite being 15 percent of the overall student population.  

North Carolina defines giftedness as being able to “...perform or show the potential to perform at substantially high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of (students') age, experience, or environment.” 

Students must perform exceptionally well on standardized tests to be identified as gifted. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools' 2022-2025 AIG plan, for instance, requires students to perform 90 percent or higher on end-of-grade exams to qualify as gifted, and 97 percent or higher than the national grade-level average between third and seventh grade to qualify for the "Highly Gifted Program."

It is important to understand why these enormous disparities exist. The Hunt Institute contends that the root cause extends back to the 1910s, when psychologist and eugenicist Lewis Terman invented the IQ exam that later became the “foundation of gifted testing.” 

The legacy of the IQ test cannot be understated: even now, admissions for gifted programs overwhelmingly favor high-income students, who are more likely to be white. 

American Indian and Black students are the least represented in AIG programs. In fact, EducationNC estimates that the number of American Indian students in AIG Math is less than 10 percent of what should be given their overall student population. 

EdNC also found that “if the proportion of Black students designated AIG reading equaled their proportion of the overall student population, over 4,300 additional Black students would be designated AIG Reading.” This number rises to 6,200 for AIG Math. 

These disparities cause a massive loss of potential talent. The Hechinger Report projects that up to 3.6 million children in the U.S. should be labeled gifted, but aren't due to systemic biases. 

In addition to screening policies that tend to favor wealthier – and predominantly white – students, North Carolina's AIG funding model accounts for some of these inequities. The problem arises because AIG is financed via flat grants, a per-student allocation that is provided for a predetermined proportion of gifted and talented students. 

According to Kristen R. Stephens, an associate professor at Duke University who specializes in policy issues related to gifted education, flat grant models "provide insufficient aid to districts with small student populations and fail to equalize capacity across districts with varying fiscal resources."

Stephens concurs that flat grant models allocate more aid to local education systems with fewer low-income students, which only exacerbates systemic inequalities with gifted education. 

To address racial and socioeconomic inequities in education, North Carolina’s Department of Education announced a proposal to reform gifted programming. The department recommended that the state’s public schools recruit students to AIG programs based on "intentional, flexible grouping practices" instead of solely using aptitude or other performance measures, with the aim of opening up opportunities to students from non-white racial groups. 

Though this proposal seems like a step in the right direction, the Hunt Institute finds that it might actually widen the opportunity gap. Parents with extra disposable income will likely seek specialized enrichment programs after school to advance their children's education in response to such a policy change  — a privilege that students with minimal resources likely will not have. 

There are other major issues with removing the performance component of AIG, however. In 1996, the General Assembly passed legislation that protected “students with gifts and talents” to access education services that better cater to them. The DPI’s new proposal, therefore, arguably impedes this right. 

Fortunately, the CHCCS 2022-2025 AIG plan takes many of these recommendations into account to grant diverse students equitable access to AIG programming. The plan suggests that screening processes cater to local demographics and provide prospective students the ability to opt-out of testing. 

It also states that schools should utilize the Racial Equity Impact Assessment in all decision-making regarding student referrals to AIG. Finally, it proposes collaboration with the Dual Language/MLL/World Languages Department to identify how schools can better identify multilingual students who take the universal screening measures in elementary school. 

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In a country that views education as an economic equalizer and key predictor for future success, policymakers have a moral imperative to ensure that every child receives equitable access to high-quality instruction.