The influence of line drawing in the American K-12 educational system is well documented. Redistricting, testing requirements and funding issues often rise to the forefront of the public consciousness. But less frequently debated questions of scope can have similarly dramatic effects. For instance, how should schools identify and provide services for their academically gifted students? A recent study conducted by a team of education scholars, including Cato College of Education professor Michael Matthews, reveals the answer to that question helps shape the racial makeup of gifted education classrooms, often disproportionately excluding minority groups.
The research, published in the journal AERA Open, revealed that when schools use national standards to determine which students are academically advanced, unequal racial representation usually occurs. According to the research, this results in the disproportionate representation of Asian American and white students, while African American and Hispanic groups are largely underrepresented. Furthermore, researchers found that when the scope was narrowed to a localized standard, representation became more proportionate.
“The benefits we found in using local building-level comparisons were tremendous; just this one policy change in the schools could increase the number of Black students in gifted programs by around 250 percent,” said Matthews, director of UNC Charlotte’s Academically or Intellectually Gifted Education Programs (AIG).
The team examined the test results of third graders in 10 different states across the span of a decade. Researchers first compared the results to national standards, allowing only those students within the top five or 15 percent of all students nationwide to qualify as gifted. They then narrowed the scope, comparing scores at state levels, then at each school district and finally at individual classrooms.
Researchers compared the top 5 or 15 percent of each tier to examine how racial representation would change. They discovered that racial representation improved as the standards became more localized. By comparing students to peers within their region, African American representation tripled and Hispanic representation nearly doubled.
According to Matthews, the switch from comparing students at a national level to a local standard allows their performance to be measured against other similar students in the same learning environment. The results suggest that just because a student is not ranking within the range of national qualifications, does not mean that they are not performing at a rate far above grade level within their school. But because they are often identified by national standards, they may not receive attention and resources conducive to their learning needs.
“There are far too many schools whose staff still believe that they have no gifted students in their school, despite the observation that every school has students who are capable of work that is well ahead of their peers in that setting,” said Matthews. “Because many schools are becoming re-segregated over time, it is crucial for children in every school to be provided with equitable access to the kinds of advanced learning opportunities that good gifted education programming provides.”
Advanced learning opportunities allow high-achieving students to move at a pace that is more suitable to their learning style and begin more advanced courses. Teachers who are specially trained through programs like UNC Charlotte’s AIG programs can work with existing content in different ways that are better matched with the learning needs of academically gifted students.
“Because of historical inequities, not all children have had the opportunity to participate in appropriately advanced learning opportunities,” Matthews said. “We know from other research that participation in gifted education programming is associated with future attainment of advanced degrees and various other positive life outcomes. More equal racial representation would help address the issue of economic mobility by helping more people access well-paying jobs in the future.