Posted on November 7, 2011

Washington-Area Schools Confront the ‘Gifted Gap’

Kevin Sieff, Washington Post, November 6, 2011

The budding scholars in Alexandria’s gifted classes are bright and curious enough to make any teacher beam, but these days they’re also an emblem of what the school system calls one of its greatest failures: a lack of diversity among the academic elite.

Most of the city’s students are black or Hispanic. Most in gifted programs are white.

This imbalance in classes tailored to gifted and talented students is echoed across the region and the nation, a source of embarrassment to many educators.

In theory, a racial enrollment gap in gifted programs should be easier for schools to close than a racial achievement gap. But in practice, experts say, there are many obstacles. Among them, they say, are testing and outreach methods that fail to ensure children from all backgrounds get an equal shot.


Alexandria is debating how to diversify gifted classes without sacrificing rigor. That pursuit could raise questions such as how intelligence is measured and the function of a program catering to the academic elite. {snip}


In recent decades, local school agencies and state and federal governments have wrestled with how to define gifted students. Intelligence tests have been tweaked. The referral process in many districts has changed. But many gifted classes remain stacked with white and Asian students.

“It’s a national problem,” said Joyce VanTassel-Baska, an education professor at the College of William and Mary, “and in some districts it’s extremely hard to make progress.”


Among local school systems, Prince William County’s has taken perhaps the most aggressive policy on diversity in gifted classes. It mandates that the demographic composition of the gifted program reflect the overall racial and ethnic makeup of the school system. To do that, Prince William has amended its identification process to ensure that it finds gifted students from a variety of backgrounds.

The Fairfax County system and others in Northern Virginia have started an enrichment program that targets high-achieving minority students.

{snip} Still, Fairfax’s gifted program is overwhelmingly white and Asian.


In nearly every local system, white students are disproportionately represented, even though most gifted programs explicitly target students with natural talents and aptitude, which are spread evenly across racial groups and social classes.