The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These kids were geniuses — they were just too poor for anyone to discover them

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In 2003, Cynthia Park asked her staff to make a map showing where every gifted student lived in Broward County, Fla.

The result was an atlas of inequality.

“All of them were scattered in the suburbs and in the wealthier communities, where parents were more involved in education,” recalls Park, who oversaw the county’s gifted students program. “The map was virtually void in other areas."

Park's map helped convince board members for the school district, which serves over a quarter-million children in and around Fort Lauderdale, that it needed to work much harder at identifying precocious children from all neighborhoods. In 2005, Broward began giving a short test to all students in the second grade. Those who scored well were sent off for further evaluation to determine their aptitude for the system's gifted program.

Now, newly released research by economists David Card, of the University of California at Berkeley, and Laura Giuliano, of the University of Miami, shows that Broward's initiative was, at least in its initial years, a huge success at identifying poor, minority students qualified for gifted programs. Crucially, the process laid bare the surprising — and disturbing — reasons that the school district hadn't been finding these kids in the first place.

"I remember being blown over," said Donna Turner, Broward's coordinator of gifted services, who recently retired. "There were these very highly gifted kids that nobody had ever referred."

Broward's struggle reflects a nationwide problem with inequality in gifted education. About eight percent of white children in public schools are considered gifted by their school district — but only 3.6 percent of black students and 4.2 percent of Latino students are deemed gifted, according to Department of Education statistics from 2006.

Critics say gifted programs amplify inequality because they disproportionately recruit children from high-income families — another example of how opportunity accrues to those already blessed with opportunity. In the early 2000s, white children in Broward were nearly four times as likely as black children to be labeled gifted. Broward was mostly composed of minority students, but white students far outnumbered black and Hispanic students in the gifted program. Of the 10,000 children considered gifted at the time, 5,600 were white, 1,500 were black and 2,000 were Hispanic.

Card and Giuliano's research found that those disparities could be blamed in large part on the county's gifted nomination process, which relied on teachers and parents to recommend kids for IQ testing by a psychologist. Many promising students, particularly those attending poorer schools, just weren't getting referred.

That all changed after the county began universally screening its second-graders. The screening test flagged thousands of children as potentially gifted, and school psychologists started working overtime to evaluate all of them. Out of that process, Broward identified an additional 300 gifted children between 2005 and 2006, according to Card and Giuliano's research. The impact on racial equity was huge: 80 percent more black students and 130 percent more Hispanic students were now entering gifted programs in third grade.

Card and Giuliano's chart below shows that impact. In 2004-2005, only about one percent of black students and two percent of Hispanic students were in gifted programs by the end of third grade. Those rates jumped up in 2006 and 2007, when the screening and testing project was in full swing.

For Card, the economist, the lesson from Broward is that the roots of inequality run deep. “This study suggests that there is a lot of talent out there that people are missing,” Card said.

There’s plenty of research, he notes, showing that high-achieving, low-income students “undermatch” — they tend not to apply to more selective colleges even though they could probably get in. Often the students are not savvy about admissions or aren’t confident enough in themselves to aim higher. Their guidance counselors might lack knowledge about the right opportunities.

Card and Giuliano’s research shows that these same forces exist at the elementary school level. “This is, in a way, even more serious,” Card said. “There may be lots more kids than we realize that are talented, but we’re not getting to them in early grades. Presumably, by the time they’re getting to high school, they’re not going to be in as good a position.”

It's a theme in education: Missed chances early in life contribute to more missed chances down the line. Not only are poor kids less likely to get the stimulation at home needed to nurture their talents, but their parents and teachers are also less likely to push them into gifted programs. Furthermore, about one-third of states — including Florida — require students to score high on an IQ test as part of the screening process, and those scores tend to be intertwined with socioeconomic status.

For decades, the state of Florida has tried to increase access to gifted education. Broward is one of many Florida counties that maintains two sets of standards for gifted students. Most children have to score at least 130 on the state-mandated IQ test — roughly in the top five percent — to qualify. But children still learning English, and those from low-income households, only have to score 116.

The lower cutoff is one way to accommodate precocious children who have not had the same opportunities as their peers. Researchers have long observed that IQ tests have socioeconomic biases. Some component of intelligence may be innate, but young minds only truly blossom in stimulating environments, according to psychologists who study twins.

The gulf between rich and poor kids starts to widen at an early age, particularly for language skills. Researchers at Stanford University recently found that by age 2, poor kids had already fallen behind the rich kids by six months in terms of language development.

Despite the lower cutoff, Card and Giuliano document that in the early 2000s, gifted children in Broward were twice as likely to be found at the richest 13 elementary schools. Meanwhile, there were 13 elementary schools, mostly filled with poorer students, where not a single child had been identified as gifted.

The school system already had staff psychologists who administered the three- to four-hour IQ evaluation at no cost to the families. But the data suggest that many poor families did not know about the gifted option, and furthermore, teachers at low-income schools were not widely referring these kinds of children.

In contrast, wealthier families would keenly chase the gifted designation. Some parents paid up to $1,000 to hire private psychologists, believing that an independent IQ evaluation would give their children the best shot at getting a good score. Card and Giuliano report that in the early 2000s, about one-fifth of gifted children from middle- or upper-class backgrounds had used a private IQ test to get into the program.

For parents with resources, gifted education was viewed as "a means of segregating their own child." Park said. “It’s extremely sad, and it’s part of what gives gifted a bad name.”

“You have to break through that preconception,” Park said. “There are gifted kids everywhere.”

Of the 300 additional gifted students identified at the height of the screening program, about 240 were low-income or English-learning children who scored at least 116 on the IQ test. Among those 240 children from disadvantaged backgrounds, about one-fifth showed exceedingly high IQ scores, over 130. All of these genius-level children, according to Card and Giuliano, would not have been caught by the old system of recommendations.

Often, gifted children don’t do well in school because they question authority and are seen as troublemakers, Park said. Behaviors that in a wealthy classroom might be viewed as precocious can be perceived as disruptive in low-income classrooms.

Reaching out to parents and teachers was an important part of increasing gifted participation. Some reacted with bewilderment when Park told them that their child might be gifted.

“‘He argues all the time. He can’t be gifted until he learns respect,’” Park recalls one mother telling her.

“We would have to try to explain that sometimes sass is good,” Park said.

Eventually, Broward's campaign to find all those gifted kids faltered. The screening program was straining the school district’s budget. School psychologists were administering an additional 1,300 IQ evaluations a year, and the cost of overtime to conduct these sessions, about $300 each, added up.

“It was a tremendous burden on the staff,” Park concedes, “but they very happily carried the burden because it was a good thing.”

Then the recession hit Broward. In 2007, 5.5 percent of third grade students in Broward were in gifted education — the next year, only about 4.5 percent. There was less funding available for the extra IQ evaluations, and the cost of the screening tool itself went up. The district now uses a cheaper screening test that refers fewer students for further evaluation. Fewer referrals means fewer IQ evaluations, which saves even more money.

It's unclear what the long-term legacy of universal gifted screening has been in Broward. According to public records, the disparities between white and black children have widened in recent years. As of December, a white student in Broward was nearly five times as likely as a black student to be labeled gifted, and nearly twice as likely as a Latino student.

“This is very common in education,” says Park, who recently left the school district. “Things just move around and around in a circle.”