How to advance equity in gifted education

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At Texas A&M, Dr. Karen Rambo-Hernández and her team recently studied how changing the reference group for identifying gifted students could influence ethnic and racial representation in gifted education.

What they found is startling: When the criteria for identifying is set to the top five percent of a school—instead of the top five percent of the country, the national norm traditionally followed—representation for African Americans and Hispanic/Latinx students of any race increased by 300% and 170%, respectively, in math. In reading, the increases were 238% for African Americans and 157% for Hispanic/Latinx kids.

We sat down with Dr. Rambo-Hernández to learn more about her study and its implications. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What drove you to investigate how norms used to identify gifted students can affect equity in education?

One of the problems we were seeing in gifted ed is that the children who are getting served are usually just the ones who meet the national cutoff. And that is a more homogeneous group of students. It’s the students who have been afforded more opportunities. They’ve had more chances to grow.

Friends don’t let friends use national norms for gifted identification. […] You’re just going to perpetuate disparities.”

But when we look at individual schools, we see that there are kids everywhere whose school curriculum is not matching their academic needs. We see kids who could be challenged more. We wanted to find a better way to identify those students who, when given the opportunity, could really excel but may not meet those national norms.

What were you expecting MAP Growth data to reveal about gifted kids? Were you surprised by any of the findings?

I was expecting to see some inequity. But two things surprised me.

One was that a relatively simple change in how we identify gifted students resulted in huge gains in the numbers and types of students who were identified. We had a much more equitable representation of students.

The second thing was the effect of that threshold change in different schools. In a school with an average proportion of minority students, the benefits of changing the reference group were not as big. In the schools where there were larger proportions of students from African American or Hispanic backgrounds, however, we were seeing huge bumps. It was frustrating to see that our schools are more segregated than we like to think.

What recommendations do you have for legislators as well as school and district-level administrators based on your research?

One of the taglines we talk about with this study is, Friends don’t let friends use national norms for gifted identification. It’s just bad practice. You’re just going to perpetuate disparities.

We need to shift [the] conception of what education is supposed to do. There shouldn’t be a mismatch between the classroom curriculum and what a kid needs.”

Also, all of us—legislators, administrators, everyone—need to stop thinking of the US as one big, homogeneous group. Let’s capture the heterogeneity and find the kids who need us, the kids who aren’t well served by the standard curriculum.

Finally, if you’re at the school or district level, don’t wait for legislation to change. Reset the threshold for gifted education in your school or district.

What are some of the barriers policymakers typically face when trying to address inequity in gifted education?  

I think there’s this perception that gifted students are going to be okay and that we don’t have to do anything to make sure their education is meeting their academic needs. But every kid deserves to have a quality education.

I also think there’s a perception that there maybe aren’t very many of them, so why worry? When we adjust the comparison group to other students in their school, though, we see that’s not true at all. There are actually a lot more gifted (or maybe a better term is “academically advanced”) children than we think, and they all need to be served.

Clearly your research is helping schools and districts change how they identify students for gifted programs. What do you think the impact will be on students?

One immediate outcome should be that we have better representation, that the students who are getting served by gifted programs look more like the population of students who live in the United States.

Could you say more about how the federal definition of giftedness might be a lever for policymakers or advocacy organizations to call on the use of these building-level or local norms?

It’s such a powerful definition. It’s so clear. “Children and youth with outstanding talents and performance show potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared to others of their age, experience, or environment.”

[D]on’t wait for legislation to change. Reset the threshold for gifted education in your school or district.”

Tweet: How to advance equity in gifted education #edchat #edpolicy #edequityThe Department of Education is telling us, without being explicit, to consider local norms in identifying students for services. We’re finding it’s actually not that hard to implement the change in the reference group we’re advocating for when we remind people that the federal norms allow for it.

In the study, you talk a bit about political blowback reported from districts where parents whose children are white, Asian American, or upper income worry they may lose services if norms are changed. How might a school or district mitigate some of that blowback?

Well, if it were up to me, we would start worrying less about the label “gifted” and more about meeting the academic needs of a wide range of students. We tend to focus too much on that label when it’s not about that at all. It’s about making sure every student is given the maximal opportunity to grow. We need to shift teachers’ and administrators’ and parents’ conception of what education is supposed to do. There shouldn’t be a mismatch between the classroom curriculum and what a kid needs.

Read the entire study findings in AERA Open. And learn more about gifted education in the US in “Gifted education in America is finally moving past its legacy of inequality.”

Christine Pitts, policy advisor at NWEA, coauthored this blog.


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