Among elementary school students with high standardized test scores, black students are about half as likely as their white peers to be assigned to gifted programs in math and reading. However, when black students are taught by a black classroom teacher, the racial gap in gifted assignment largely disappears, according to a new Vanderbilt University study published today in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.
Using data on more than 10,000 elementary school students from the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten cohort, the study found that black students are 66 percent less likely and Hispanic students are 47 percent less likely than white students to be assigned to gifted programs. The researchers sought to examine this discrepancy and evaluate both socioeconomic and education factors that may be contributing to it.
The white-Hispanic assignment gap was significantly decreased when the authors analyzed differences in prior achievement on math and reading scores. In fact, when controlling for math and reading assessments, the gap between white and Hispanic students was statistically indistinguishable from zero, suggesting that differences in test scores can explain the entire white-Hispanic gifted gap.
However, controlling for math and reading scores did not have the same effect for black students. In fact, black students continued to be assigned to gifted programs half as often as white peers with identical math and reading achievement.
“It is startling that two elementary school students, one black and the other white, with identical math and reading achievement, will have substantially different probabilities of assignment to gifted services,” said lead author Jason Grissom, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development. “This is especially troubling since previous studies have linked participation in gifted programs to improved academic performance, improvements in student motivation and engagement, less overall stress and other positive outcomes.”
Controlling for student sex, socioeconomic status, health and age did not close the gap, suggesting that potential additional factors contributing to the white-black assignment gap remained.
One factor the researchers did discover that helped alleviate the gifted assignment gap for black students was being assigned to a same-race teacher. In fact, all else being equal, black students are three times more likely to be assigned to gifted programs when taught by a black teacher than a nonblack teacher. Assignment rates for high-achieving black students with black teachers are similar to those of white students with similar characteristics.
Teacher racial or ethnic congruence did not have an impact on the rate of gifted assignment for white, Hispanic, or Asian students. Nationally, white students in elementary school experience teacher congruence at a rate of 95 percent while, by contrast, teacher congruence occurs for black students only 22 percent of the time.
Previous research has found that because the process of gifted assignment often begins with teacher referral, classroom teachers can play a gatekeeping role. However, Grissom and co-author Christopher Redding, a Peabody doctoral candidate, cautioned against concluding that teacher bias is the sole cause of the race gap, which could be explained by numerous other factors.
One such additional factor impacting minority assignment to gifted programs is the availability of these programs in schools attended by minority students. Black students are less likely overall to attend schools that provide gifted programs. Ninety percent of white, 93 percent of Hispanic, and 91 percent of Asian elementary students attend schools with gifted programs, while only 83 percent of African American students do.
“The persistent effects of conditions outside student control, including the availability of gifted programs and teacher assignment, raise serious concerns about whether the education system is providing equitable access to gifted programs to meet the needs of high-achieving students of color,” said Grissom.
Grissom and Redding suggested implementing universal screening of students and training to help teachers recognize giftedness in diverse populations to improve the rate at which qualified students are recognized for gifted placement. They also advocated for additional research to better explain how these gaps continue and to examine the retention rates of minority students in gifted programs.
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