The results raise “serious concerns,” the authors wrote, in a nation where 80 percent of black elementary school students are taught by teachers of other races.
Gifted programs are meant to help talented young people meet their potential. “Yet our results show that identification of gifted students depends, in part, on factors having little to do with student performance or ability that lead students to be assigned disproportionately on the basis of race and ethnicity,” the researchers wrote.
The study was published in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed publication of the American Educational Research Association.
Federal data show that 6.6 percent of all students are labeled gifted, but there are big differences among groups: 12 percent of Asians and 7.9 percent of Whites are in gifted programs, compared to 3.9 percent of blacks and 4.6 percent of Latinos. Among the many possible reasons for that discrepancy, the researchers wrote, is bias among teachers who often play a key role in deciding which students should be considered for or placed in gifted programs.
Many schools have tried to develop holistic ways of identifying gifted students so as not to be limited by one-size-fits-all standardized tests that some educators believe fail to fairly judge the potential of all children, especially those who are poor, black and Latino. Those holistic approaches, Grissom and Redding wrote, can include factors like creativity, artistic ability and leadership.
But because those characteristics are more subjective than test scores, they are more prone to teacher bias, including racial bias, the authors wrote.
For example, “racialized teacher perceptions may lead teachers to misinterpret Black or Hispanic students’ behavior because of different cultural backgrounds,” the Vanderbilt researchers wrote. “What a teacher may attribute to precocity for one student may be considered disruptive behavior for another.”
The racial gap might also be explained in other ways, the authors wrote. For example, perhaps black students respond differently to black teachers, or perhaps parents of black students are more comfortable with black teachers and therefore more likely to successfully advocate for their children to be placed in gifted programs.
Previous studies have shown that black students are more likely to be labeled “gifted” when they attend schools with higher proportions of black teachers, but did not look at how the race of an individual student’s classroom teacher affected his or her likelihood of being chosen for gifted programs.
Previous studies also didn’t filter out the effects of students’ test scores, gender, socioeconomic status, health or age when they started kindergarten. The new study did look at those factors and found that they did not explain the underrepresentation of black (and Latino) children in gifted programs.
The new study examines that question using records for thousands of children who were kindergartners in the 1998-1999 school year. The National Center for Education Statistics followed those children through eighth grade, checking in with them and recording data on their educational experience.
On the whole, Asian students are more likely than any other major racial group to be assigned to gifted programs; their odds of being called “gifted” are 44 percent higher than white students. Latino students’ odds of being labeled gifted are 47 percent lower than white students, and black students are 66 percent lower than white students.
The Vanderbilt researchers suggested that schools consider taking a page from other institutions — including law enforcement agencies — who have explicitly trained employees to be aware of their own unintentional racial biases.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the journal in which the study was published. It is AERA Open. The story has been updated.