Voices in Education

Schools Under-Identify Giftedness in Low-Socioeconomic Status Students
Meeting the academic needs of all students requires ensuring that high-ability, low-income students have the same access as their high-income classmates to the challenging, enriching content that gifted programs often provide. In our article in the Fall issue of the Harvard Educational Review, we show that the US is falling well short of this goal. We draw on two cohorts of data from the nationally-representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study to examine socioeconomic status (SES) gaps in gifted program participation. In moving beyond a simple focus on free/reduced price lunch eligibility to measure SES, we document three important conclusions.

First, there are staggering differences in gifted program participation between high- and low-SES students. Approximately thirteen percent of elementary students in the top quintile of SES receive gifted services, compared to just two percent in the bottom quintile. In other words, the most affluent students are six times more likely than the least affluent to be identified as gifted.

Second, large SES gaps persist even in comparisons of students with similar achievement levels. In most school districts, academic achievement is central in gifted identification. Higher-SES students demonstrate higher average academic achievement, but we find that achievement differences only partially explain the gifted gap. In fact, high-SES students are more often identified as gifted even when we limit the sample to students in the top five or one percent of math or reading achievement.

Third, SES gaps persist even in comparisons of students within the same school. Our analysis shows that lower access to gifted services for low-SES students is not driven by which schools students attend. Limiting our comparisons statistically to students within the same school (and accounting for a large number of other factors), we still find that the highest-SES students are twice as likely to receive gifted services as students at the other end of the SES distribution.

These within-school differences suggest that unequal access to gifted services for low-SES students is not driven just by differences in school policies, or whether a school has a gifted program. Instead, we suspect that access differences arise from whether low- and high-SES students are referred for evaluation by their teachers or parents, or perhaps from biases in gifted-evaluation instruments.

Our results underscore several longstanding questions in gifted education. How should we design gifted identification procedures to ensure equity? Should all students be screened for giftedness to limit discretion in the process, or should schools better train classroom teachers to recognize giftedness in low-SES students? And how does unequal access to gifted services further the disparities in students’ schooling experiences by SES?

About the Author: Jason A. Grissom is Associate Professor of Public Policy and Education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, where he also serves as faculty director of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance. His research spans school leadership, educator labor markets, the politics of education, and educational equity. Christopher Redding is an assistant professor in the School of Human Development and Organizational Studies in Education at the University of Florida’s College of Education. His research focuses on teacher labor markets, teacher education and development, and school improvement. Joshua Bleiberg is a PhD candidate in the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organization at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. His research focuses on state and federal education policy.