By Kristen Smith and Destiny Brandon
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – In November 2009, two months before leaving office, then-Gov. Tim Kaine ordered a study on the number of minority students in gifted education programs operated by the state’s public schools.
“Virginia is proud of both the high standards of our educational system and the wealth of diversity in our communities,” Kaine said in directing the Virginia Department of Education to conduct the study.
“As we continue to improve on our gifted education programs in particular, it’s critical we assess any disproportionate barriers to enrollment so we can ensure students of all backgrounds have the opportunity to participate.”
But on Jan. 16, 2010, Kaine departed as Bob McDonnell was inaugurated as governor. And while the Department of Education completed its report in May of that year, it was never formally released – until now.
Using Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, Capital News Service obtained a copy of the report and the most recent demographic data on students identified as gifted by the state’s public schools. The information shows that African American and Hispanic students are vastly underrepresented among children served by gifted programs.
The Department of Education, with technical assistance from the Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia, focused on the 2008-09 school year. At that time, the state’s total enrollment was 57 percent white, 26 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian.
But the breakdown of gifted students that year was quite different: 68 percent white, 12 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Asian.
Statistics for 2011-12, the most recent year available, show a similar pattern. For instance, African Americans made up 24 percent of the overall enrollment but just 11 percent of the students identified as gifted. On the other hand, children of Asian ancestry made up 6 percent of the overall enrollment but 13 percent of the gifted students.
Here’s another way to look at the numbers: Statewide, 16 percent of all Virginia students were identified as gifted last year – but the rate varied drastically among racial and ethnic groups. Thirty-five percent of all Asian students were identified as gifted; 19 percent of all white students; 11 percent of all Hispanic students; and 8 percent of all African American students.
The disparities are glaring in many school divisions. In Danville, for example, African Americans constitute 68 percent of the overall enrollment but 28 percent of the gifted students; in Charlottesville, they make up 40 percent of the overall enrollment but 10 percent of the gifted students. In Manassas, Hispanic students represent 51 percent of the overall enrollment but 29 percent of the gifted students. [Data for each school district is at http://tinyurl.com/gifted-students-data.]
Race isn’t the only disparity, the Department of Education’s report noted. “Divisions classified as cities or suburbs tended to identify greater percentages of students as gifted compared with divisions classified as rural or towns.”
Possible reasons for the underrepresentation of black and Hispanic children in gifted programs “range from social risk factors to structural inequities in American education, to cultural differences, to selective referral practices and biased tests,” the study said.
It recommended that schools follow a set of “best practices for identifying students eligible for gifted education.” Those practices included “clearly defining giftedness” and training teachers to “identify giftedness in students who are culturally and linguistically diverse.”
The Virginia Department of Education urges school divisions to follow such recommendations.
According to the agency’s Regulations Governing Educational Services for Gifted Students, schools must use multiple criteria in identifying gifted students and “seek out those students with superior aptitudes, including students for whom accurate identification may be affected because they are economically disadvantaged, have limited English proficiency, or have a disability.”
Each school division in Virginia has its own program for identifying and serving gifted students. Funding comes from the state and localities. Since 2012, the Virginia Department of Education has required all school divisions to provide teachers with professional development training concerning gifted students.
Educators say it can be a challenge to ensure that students identified as gifted represent a school district’s overall enrollment.
“The difficulty is trying to find a process that is both fair and rigorous and gets you results across all ethnicities,” said Anthony Washington, an instructional specialist for gifted programs for the Richmond Public Schools.
In the 2011-2012 school year, African Americans made up 81 percent of Richmond’s total enrollment but only 48 percent of the students in its gifted programs. Whites made up 10 percent of the overall enrollment but 41 percent of the gifted students.
To help address racial disparities, Richmond Public Schools use a matrix of assessments aimed at ensuring that all students have an equal chance at being identified for gifted education. Those assessments include parent inventories, teacher recommendations, ability measurements and achievement measurements. It can also include non-verbal measurement testing.
The goal is to identify gifted students regardless of socioeconomic status.
“The first and foremost issue is just having teachers and other administrators recognize that the characteristics exhibited by students from low SES backgrounds may not be exactly the same as students who are from higher SES backgrounds,” said Donna Poland, a gifted specialist for the Richmond Public Schools.
It can be more difficult for teachers to recognize minority students in urban areas as gifted because of cultural differences associated with socioeconomic status, Poland and Washington said.
“When you come to urban environments where children are a lot more active, they’re much more talkative and they’re more hands-on, some teachers may look at those students and say that the child isn’t gifted. They’re basing that off of that behavior, and that behavior is kind of going hand in hand with the fact that the child needs to be engaged at a higher level,” Washington said.
“Everybody recognizes the problem. Everybody wants to correct the problem and is taking steps in that direction. But how we do that is the difficult question that we are trying to answer.”
“There are kids who show potential to really excel, but maybe they haven’t had all the opportunities to really demonstrate that. And so we pull them in, and we give them opportunities to learn skills and to show what they know in different ways, and nurture them and then look for identification. This is another method that’s been shown through research to work very well with being able to identify more black, Hispanic and other minority students.”
One big step in identifying minority students for gifted education is understanding their culture and how they express themselves while still treating them as equals.
“It’s a much more difficult problem to correct than it seems like on paper,” Poland said. “You see this inequity and it’s ‘All right, let’s go fix it.’ But that fix is very complicated and very multifaceted and exists within local state and federal rules.”
On the Web
In late 2009, then-Gov. Tim Kaine announced that he was ordering a study “to address disparities in gifted education.” The announcement is at www.doe.virginia.gov/news/news_releases/2009/nov17.shtml
Capital News Service recently obtained a copy of the study and posted it at http://tinyurl.com/gifted-ed-study
CNS also obtained demographic data on the students identified as gifted statewide and in each school division. It is at http://tinyurl.com/gifted-students-data