Why Gifted Programs Lack Diversity

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by Douglas G. Wren, Ed.D.

Before taking a central office job with the DeKalb County (GA) School District, I was a classroom teacher at a magnet school for high achievers. Besides testing students to determine if they qualified for the “gifted” label, I taught an afterschool assessment course to teachers who were seeking their gifted add-on endorsement. The following piece focuses on two of my interest areas: gifted education and assessment. Included are links to references and other sources. I welcome your feedback. Please email me at doug@edjacent.org or visit my website at https://wrenedconsult.com.

Early in her career, renowned gifted education authority Donna Ford wrote that “concerns over recruiting and retaining minority students in gifted education programs have persisted for several decades” (1998, p. 4). Twenty-three years later, these concerns still persist. African American, Indigenous American, Latinx, and economically disadvantaged students continue to be grossly underrepresented in gifted programs.

This is a nationwide problem. On a survey conducted by the National Association for Gifted Children and the Council of State Directors of Programs for the Gifted (2015), nearly every state responded that the inclusion of underrepresented students in gifted programs was an area in need of attention.

Virginia was one of those states. Data released by the Virginia Department of Education for the 2019-2020 school year shows that underrepresented groups in local gifted programs is most certainly an area in need of attention. The percentages below indicate each group’s representation in the total population of public school students in Virginia versus the group’s makeup among students receiving gifted services in the state.

  • Black students: 21.8% of all students vs. 11.6% of gifted students
  • Hispanic students: 17.1% of all students vs. 9.9% of gifted students
  • Economically disadvantaged students: 43.7% of all students vs. 19.7% of gifted students
  • English Language Learners: 13.0% of all students vs. 5.0% of gifted students 

Many other gifted education experts besides Ford have spoken out about this problem (e.g., Callahan, 2005; Olszewski-Kubilius & Clarenbach, 2012; Renzulli & Reis, 2020), yet states and school districts can’t seem to solve it. Why is this? As a longtime educator and psychometrician, I believe the problem is due primarily to the methods that districts use to identify children for gifted services. They keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. (Please note: Albert Einstein never said this.)

Maybe some school districts don’t expect different results. As a longtime student of American history and politics, I suspect there is something more sinister at play. It would take a very thick book to explain all of the obstacles that have prevented and continue to prevent children of color and economically disadvantaged children from having the same educational opportunities as children from the majority culture. But the focus of this piece is on standardized testing—one of the most common methods of identifying gifted students—and how testing contributes to the lack of diversity in gifted programs.

Achievement and Ability Test Issues

On its website, the National Association for Gifted Children states, “Testing provides an objective and systematic way for identifying gifted children” (2021, para. 2). Nationally norm-referenced achievement tests, such as the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT-10) and Iowa Assessments (formerly the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills [ITBS]), are psychometrically sound measures of student learning; however, research conducted over the past six decades demonstrates that standardized achievement test scores are positively correlated with socioeconomic status (e.g., Caldas, 1993; Jencks, 1972; Sexton, 1961; Unnever, Kerckhoff, & Robinson, 2000; Walsh, 1986; White et al., 2016). To illustrate the correlation, the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University used 10 years of test data from public school students in grades 3-8 to create this scatterplot.

Explaining the relationship between test scores and socioeconomic status (SES), Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis, two living legends in the field of gifted education, wrote that “an assessment of learning [i.e., achievement test] . . . tells us what students already know and how they have performed in school when compared with others. Scores often reflect students’ family backgrounds, neighborhood demographics, early life experiences, and the quality of their previous school experiences” (2020, para. 3). School districts that rely heavily on achievement test scores to identify gifted students are prioritizing the knowledge of some children over the potential of others. It’s no wonder that economically disadvantaged children are underrepresented in gifted programs.

But what about ability tests such as the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT) and the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT), two of the most popular standardized assessments used to identify gifted children? While the publishers of the NNAT, a nonverbal ability test, claim it is a “culturally neutral assessment of general ability” (2018, p. 1), many experts disagree. One group of researchers told schools and districts to “not assume that using a figural screening test such as the NNAT2, without other adjustments to selection protocol, will address minority underrepresentation” (Giessman, Gambrell, & Stebbins, 2013, p. 101). Another pair cautioned that “nonverbal ability tests in and of themselves do not provide a ‘level playing field’ for students from different educational or cultural backgrounds” (Carman & Taylor, 2010, p. 81).

The CogAT and other tests that purportedly measure children’s intellectual ability (e.g., the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children [WISC]) are not free of culture bias either. Even David Lohman, the developer of the last three forms of the CogAT reported that “[CogAT] Form 7 tests substantially reduce but do not eliminate group differences” (2011, slide 28). Further, both Lohman (2006) and Jack Naglieri, the creator of the NNAT, have said that tests with verbal and math components (e.g., CogAT, WISC) measure achievement along with ability, meaning the tests “can become a barrier to smart children who do not have adequate academic skills. . . . The disadvantage of such tests outweighs any advantages, and the failure to include diverse populations [in gifted programs] because of limited academic skills can be described as a social injustice” (2008, p. 85).

Test Prep and Anxiety

There are additional issues associated with standardized testing that affect students’ test performance, and the effects are more harmful to students of color and economically disadvantaged students than to well-off students of European descent. The first issue is test preparation. With advanced notice that a gifted identification or screening test is going be administered to their children, some parents purchase practice tests to familiarize their children with the upcoming test’s format and types of questions. White parents are more likely to pay for test preparation materials than African American or Latinx parents (Roda, 2017). Concerning the abundance of available online test prep, Lohman and his colleague, James Gambrell, commented that “savvy parents can easily give their child an advantage on the screening test, thereby further disadvantaging the disadvantaged” (2012, p. 34).

Examinees’ emotions can affect test performance as well. This is especially true for children in grades K-2, a time when many schools screen students for gifted services. In some districts, the tests are administered by itinerant staff instead of classroom teachers. Besides feeling anxious about taking their first standardized test, young children can also be intimidated by a stranger administering the test to them. A number of studies included in a meta-analysis indicated that low SES children perform better on difficult tests when they “knew the examiner for a relatively long duration” (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1986, p. 243) than when the examiner was unfamiliar. A later meta-analysis found that African American and Latinx children scored significantly higher with familiar rather than unfamiliar examiners (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1989).

Another issue is children’s test anxiety, which is more prevalent than many people would like to believe. It has been estimated that over one-third of students in the US have been affected by test anxiety during their school careers (Methia, 2004). The consequence is that “test anxiety reduces the validity of cognitive ability test scores” (Gaye-Valentine & Credé, 2013, p. 128). Although students in every demographic group experience test anxiety, various studies have concluded that African American schoolchildren have higher levels of test anxiety than their White counterparts (e.g., Carter, Williams, & Silverman, 2008; Hembree, 1988; Wren & Benson, 2004).

Other Concerns

Given all of the issues associated with standardized tests as a way to identify gifted students, it makes sense that the majority of states endorse a multiple criteria model of gifted identification. That said, other common methods of screening and identifying students for giftedness—for example, teacher recommendations, report card grades, checklists, narratives, and interviews—have their own flaws.

Concerns about how these other methods contribute to gifted education’s problem of underrepresented groups are described in my recent article in Murmurations, an academic journal started with “the intent of dissolving the dynamics that support and re-create inequitable educational outcomes.”

Are economically disadvantaged students and/or students of color underrepresented in gifted programs at schools in your district? The aforementioned article contains recommendations to address this inequity, including ideas for transformative professional development and the use of local norms, instead of national norms, for determining giftedness with standardized test results (Peters et al., 2019). Correcting the 20th century problem of underrepresented groups in gifted education is long overdue.

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