This commentary is adapted from submitted written testimony by Allison Roda and Judith Kafka for a New York State Assembly Hearing held on May 10, 2019, addressing admissions and diversity in New York City’s specialized high schools.
This year, just 10.5 percent of the students admitted to New York City’s eight specialized high schools (SHS)—which use a single test to determine admission—were black or Latinx. This statistic—which hasn’t changed much at all over the past five years—stands in stark contrast with the overall demographics of NYC’s public schools, in which 66 percent of students are black or Latinx.
One proposal for addressing the dismal percentage of black and Latinx students admitted to NYC’s specialized high schools is to expand the number of gifted and talented (G&T) programs in elementary and middle schools. Supporters offer this solution in contrast to the mayor’s proposal to diversify the specialized high schools by providing guaranteed spots for a set percentage of high-achieving students from middle schools across the city. They hope that expanding the number of seats will help black and Latinx students compete for admission into selective middle and high schools—essentially diversifying the G&T-to-SHS pipeline.
Research and past experience suggest, however, that expanding G&T programs is unlikely to improve racial/ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in the city’s specialized high schools, as G&T programs serve to reinforce and reify educational inequalities, not interrupt them.
G&T Admissions Systems Are Inherently Inequitable
Just like admission to the city’s specialized high schools, admission to G&T programs in New York City is currently based solely on a single test score. Research has shown a tight correlation between test scores and socioeconomic status. It should come as no surprise, then, that test-based admissions systems produce racial/ethnic and socioeconomic segregation, especially in school systems like New York City’s, where race and class are tightly intertwined. Year after year, the G&T student population in New York is disproportionately white and Asian, comprising roughly 70 percent of students in these programs, even though they make up only about 30 percent of the overall public school population. And while around 77 percent of the city’s students live in poverty, only about 43 percent of students in G&T programs are poor.
A handful of schools with G&T programs have tried to increase diversity within the confines of the test-based admissions process by setting aside a small portion of their seats to be filled first by students who score high enough on the test and are either low-income, English-learning, in public housing, or meet other need-based criteria. However, this year, a majority of those schools failed to reach even modest diversity goals, because there simply were not enough high-need students who met the testing requirements and applied to the school.
Other methods of admissions to G&T programs are, unfortunately, equally problematic. A recent study found that, nationally, when an admissions process allows for teacher discretion, black students with high standardized test scores are less likely to receive G&T services than white students with similar scores, and suggests that teacher bias (and teachers’ racial background) explains some of this difference. In fact, NYC’s current admissions system based on a single test was put in place under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg as part of a failed attempt to correct inequities in the existing admissions protocol, which was based on a variety of criteria, including teacher recommendations and private (and expensive) psychological evaluations. Ultimately, what seems like a commonsense solution to diversify the G&T-to-SHS pipeline—by preparing and testing all children—is actually not going to have the desired effect of increased diversity in specialized high schools, because G&T programs suffer from the same segregating forces as the specialized high schools.
Expanding G&T Expands Segregation
Attempting to expand and diversify G&T programs also does not address the core problem of separating students into dual school systems operating at the curricular level within public school settings. Research documents a host of academic and social harms resulting from segregation—even if it occurs within an individual school building—including achievement and opportunity gaps and negative stereotypes. According to Karolyn Tyson, professor at the University of North Carolina, racialized tracking exists because of the stubborn disparities in average academic achievement between racial and socioeconomic groups—disparities which are themselves exacerbated by tracking—that districts and schools then use to “justify the segregation.” Tracking persists despite legal challenges and reams of social science evidence that have found this practice to be unconstitutional due to the academic and social stigmas it produces, and the differential access to advanced curricula and high achieving peers it creates.
Not only will expansion of G&T programs fail to address the racial and ethnic segregation that exists in the specialized high schools, but also it will serve to increase segregation at the primary school level, further limiting educational opportunities for black and Latinx students.
Historically, G&T programs and other “advanced” curricular offerings grew during the desegregation era as a way for more-affluent white families to secure additional resources and maintain segregation. Like Advanced Placement or Honors courses, housing separate G&T programs within schools that also contain general education programs is a form of tracking, because students are fully separated for instruction. In most suburban districts, elementary school G&T programs are “pull-out” programs in which G&T students are given access to a special curriculum outside the regular classroom for a set number of hours per week; the remainder of the time, these students are educated alongside their general education peers. But in New York City, G&T programs are full-time, school-within-school models in which students are taught separately from their general education peers.
Research evidence overwhelmingly points to the benefits of de-tracked classrooms and desegregated schools for all children—including those who may test into G&T programs. Furthermore, de-tracked classrooms with heterogeneous ability groups have been shown to dramatically close achievement and opportunity gaps.
Offering a dual system of G&T programs within public schools is also an inequitable form of school choice. Overall, while 40 percent of all kindergarten students in New York City attend schools outside of their zone, white and Asian students are more likely than their black and Latinx counterparts to do so in order to enroll in a school with a G&T program; this is true even as a greater percentage of black and Latinx families exercise school choice at the kindergarten level.
We Have Tried (and Failed) to Achieve Equity by Expanding Screened Programs Before
Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein already tried the approach of expanding G&T to promote equity back in 2008, and their measure failed miserably. After the city switched from an admissions system based on multiple measures to one based on a single test score, and tried to expand the number of G&T programs, the percentage of black and Latinx student in G&T programs fell by half, from 46 percent of program entrants to just 22 percent.
As with its approach to G&T programs, the Bloomberg administration’s answer to the problem of black and Latinx students’ gross underrepresentation in specialized high schools was to expand the number of seats available by creating/designating five new specialized high schools that are not technically beholden to New York State’s Hecht–Calandra law (which mandates test-based admission at three of the specialized schools), but nonetheless use the same single exam for admissions. The result is today’s status-quo: while some of these newer schools admit slightly higher percentages of black and Latinx students, the overall rate of admissions of black and Latinx students to the specialized high schools remains unacceptably low.
The Path Forward
Instead of New York City public schools becoming the “great equalizer’ in society, through their use of G&T tracking, they are labeling some students as more likely to succeed than others, and this process relies on parents as the gatekeepers. Research has shown that parents’ choice of getting their children tested for the program, as well as their choice to prepare their children for the G&T tests are highly dependent on parents’ knowledge of the G&T admissions system, and their ability to pay for or have access to test prep materials.
Given the fact that the current New York City public school system systematically segregates students into specialized programs at every grade level, and that these programs and schools reflect a student’s racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, and linguistic background, policymakers must directly challenge and transform the structures that sustain the reproduction of inequalities. New York City should phase out G&T programs and replace them with equitable and integrated schools. This shift should include creating support for schools to use the schoolwide enrichment model, an approach to gifted education based on the philosophy that all children have unique gifts and talents—not just the students who score well on standardized tests and in classroom settings—and equipping schools to implement a culturally responsive and sustaining curriculum, in line with the framework set forth by New York State. In the short term, we also strongly recommend that the city eliminate test-based enrollment screens at the elementary, middle, and high schools across the city and replace them with a more holistic approach that includes diversity targets.
All students—even gifted ones—develop critical thinking skills and reduce prejudices by interacting with diverse peers of all abilities. Expanding G&T programs that are already separate and unequal will only create more segregation.