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October 21, 2019

Money or Merit? Gaps in Gifted Services Driven by Income Status

Timothy and Karl sit next to each other in the same class and are both strong students with similar scores in math and reading. But guess which one is more likely to land in a gifted education program? The one whose family makes more money.

Nationwide, a student from a family in the top fifth of income level is twice as likely to receive gifted services than an equally achieving student in the bottom fifth.

That’s according to a recent study published in the Harvard Educational Review.

“Those same-school comparisons suggest that gaps in gifted services can’t be written off as a lack of local access to schools with gifted programs,” said Jason Grissom, co-author of the study and an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

The study factors in achievement scores from more than 21,000 students who entered kindergarten in 1998, along with a second group of students who started school in 2011.

The findings are in line with previous research that reveals a similar pattern.

On average, a little more than half of the students in public schools come from low-income families. Yet the proportion of low-income students in gifted education programs doesn’t reflect their proportion in general student enrollment.

Another study showed that students eligible for free and reduced lunch were more than four times less likely to be nominated and test as gifted than their higher-income peers.

It’s a factor that is likely compounding the academic achievement gap that consistently points to poverty as a determinant of poor academic achievement, even among high-achieving students.

Meanwhile, students from higher-earning families are receiving disproportionate access to programs that benefit them throughout their academic path. Enrollment in gifted programs is shown to increase student motivation, offer more opportunities for one-on-one instruction, and instill the power of self-visualization that says, “I’m good at school.”

The biggest reason high-achieving children from low-income families aren’t as likely to be nominated for gifted programs starts with the identification process.

“Gifted assessments are often determined by teacher and parent referral,” Grissom said. “And they may be less likely to recognize high achievement in lower-income kids.”
Mainly due to biases.

In some instances, student characteristics that depend on costly extracurricular activities skew the perception of what gifted looks like.

For example, the child who has become an apt violinist after years of lessons may appear to be more intelligent than an equally achieving child who hasn’t had the same opportunity.

Similarly, a child who is well-traveled or uses a certain lexicon learned in a household led by parents with higher educational attainment might appear more eligible for gifted placement.

Parents can also push their children down the line of the referral process.

“High socio-economic status parents know how those processes work and are often engaging more with teachers,” Grissom said.

With each district leading its own way in identifying, assessing, and assigning students to gifted programs, it’s difficult to streamline ways of ensuring high-achieving students, regardless of income, aren’t left behind.

Grissom said universal screening could remove teacher bias and parental influence from the referral process by assessing all students for giftedness, but it’s also costly.

A less expensive option is to use an existing universal test to screen students or train teachers specifically on evidence-based ways to identify gifted students.

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

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