The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at


A reader e-mailed me a few weeks ago with a question about gifted programs.

He began with a story about a coworker, whose daughter was in elementary school. The child had tested just below the threshold to qualify for the Gifted and Talented Education program, or GATE. The parent advocated on behalf of the child and managed to persuade the school to put her in the program.

The Learning Curve

“The fact that he’s white and educated plays a role here, I think, because he was able to get his school to reclassify her despite just missing the threshold,” the reader, Oscar Ramos, wrote. “I don’t think many immigrant families would be able to challenge their schools in a similar manner. So I’m wondering how GATE classification and racial/ethnic/economic segregation work together. My assumption is that the GATE program filters out lots of poorer kids of color and I’m wondering if that’s true.”

His assumption is spot on.

“I think gifted programs are some of the most racist, elitist, classist and discriminatory programs in the nation,” said Donna Ford, a professor at Vanderbilt University who has been studying the underrepresentation of low-income students and black and Latino students in gifted programs nationwide for nearly four decades.

A Vanderbilt University study last year looked at data from more than 10,000 students from across the United States and found that black students are 66 percent less likely than white students to be assigned to gifted programs, and Latino students are 47 percent less likely. It’s not the first study to find that these programs perpetuate the achievement gap.

That same gap exists locally, too.

In 2016-2017, although Latinos make up more than 44 percent of the overall enrollment at San Diego Unified, they made up only 33 percent of the GATE program. For black students, the disproportionality is even worse, with an 8 percent overall enrollment rate, but only a 3 percent enrollment in the GATE program.


You can look up other districts’ data on gifted program enrollment at the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights website.

“The short version of it is if black and Hispanic students are not identified as gifted – especially early on – many of their gifts and talents atrophy,” said Ford. “It’s that notion that if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

When kids don’t get the challenge they need, they can often end up underachieving or acting out because they are bored, she said.

“That’s a No. 1 rationale for a gifted education: Gifted students need to be challenged and engaged, like all other students.” Ford said. “Here’s why white students are moving ahead and you’re either standing still or regressing, so that achievement gap widens in very significant ways. It’s not just an achievement gap, but it’s underachievement. Black and Hispanic students don’t have the opportunity to reach their potential when they’re not identified as gifted.”

The gap persists for a few reasons.

Students qualify for gifted programs in different ways. Some districts base them entirely on teacher referrals. Others do universal screening, which means every child is tested in some way to determine whether they are gifted.

The biggest cause of the discrepancy is that white teachers are less likely to refer black and Latino students, said Ford. Ford said this is true even when black and Latino students score equally to their white and Asian peers on tests.

The Vanderbilt study found that among elementary school students with high standardized test scores, black students were about half as likely as their white peers to be assigned to gifted programs in math and reading. When black students are taught by a black teacher, however, the racial gap in gifted assignment largely disappeared.

“It’s racial prejudice,” Ford said. “They are profiling gifted students without perceiving culture.”

The trouble is that while nearly half of students enrolled in public schools in the U.S. are individuals of color, teachers of color make up only 18 percent of the teacher workforce nationwide, according to a 2016 U.S. Department of Education report.

In general, there are also schools with high numbers of low-income students and students of color whose parents may be less familiar with the programs, the benefits they offer and how to get their child into one. And certainly, as the reader who sent me this question pointed out, it’s more difficult for an immigrant parent who may not speak English to advocate on behalf of their child.

San Diego Unified offers GATE programs in more than 135 schools in the district and an even more advanced GATE seminar for highly gifted students in around 40 schools, but students districtwide are tested in second and third grade regardless of whether their school has the program. Students new to the district can be tested until fifth grade and some students can qualify for a re-test in fifth grade if they didn’t qualify in earlier tests. If a student qualifies for the highly gifted seminar, he or she can opt to switch schools to participate, said Jim Solo, executive director of learning and leadership at San Diego Unified.

For the more advanced seminar, parents have to figure out and provide their kid’s transportation to the other school, though. And kids will often opt to stay in their home school if being in the gifted programs means switching schools, Solo said.

Ford said there are several ways to address this gap. The first is less reliance on teacher referrals and checklists to get students into the programs.

The second is to use non-verbal tests that will decrease the influence of culture so students from immigrant families or those who grew up in neighborhoods with different norms and ways of using language won’t automatically be at a disadvantage. Gifted assessments should also always be given in a student’s primary language, Ford said.

At SDUSD, the second grade test requires no reading at all, Solo said in an e-mail. A proctor guides students through three subtests, which are made up of all pictures.  For the third to fifth grade testing, students are either proctored or wear headsets and work on their own.

“There may be single words that they read, however, there is nothing more involved,” Solo said.

He said the district doesn’t provide translation services for the testing since so little language is involved.

Ford also suggested requiring a minimum percentage of all students at every school to be placed in a gifted program, so even if the top 10 percent at one school isn’t testing as high as a district average, those students can still be challenged.

“It is inequitable to compare children whose parents are on public assistance, who don’t have certain credentials, with kids whose parents are professors,” Ford said. “Your ZIP code shouldn’t determine whether you’re gifted or not. But right now, we can already predict who is going to be identified as gifted. The education privileges go to those who already have all the privileges.”

Finally, Ford said, there should be aggressive outreach from districts to black and Latino families, so they are aware of the benefits of a gifted program and how to access it. And schools should specifically work with underrepresented student groups in gifted programs on things like test-taking skills, she said.

Solo said the district is trying to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in its gifted programs.

“Our goal is to ensure equity with all of our learners,” he said.

He said the district recently expanded the GATE program to a few more schools in southeastern San Diego.

Last year, the district also started using something called “factors,” where points are added to students’ assessments if they fall into one of the following groups: English-learner, special education, free and reduced lunch and relocation (meaning a student attended three or more schools attended since he or she began school).

Local Ed News

• Last Friday, a judge sided with the College Board in its dispute with Scripps Ranch High, meaning hundreds of Scripps Ranch students will have to retake their invalidated Advanced Placement exams. (KPBS)

• The San Diego County Office of Education spent $70,000 on a forensic audit into the alleged self-dealing of former Superintendent Randy Ward, but the Union-Tribune reports that the office won’t share what the audit found.

• The Union-Tribune looked at the Encuentras Teacher Academy in San Marcos, which is trying to get more Latinos interested in teaching.

• Sweetwater’s superintendent, Karen Janney, got a raise and a contract extension at a board meeting this week in which school board members and public speakers praised her for helping the district move forward from its sullied past, the Union-Tribune reported. If you haven’t yet listened to Ashly McGlone’s podcast on the Sweetwater scandal, you should.

Ed News Roundup

• NPR surveyed more than 2,000 teachers about their student debt. Here’s what it learned.

• In light of all the talk of school choice vouchers from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Washington Post took a look at how the existing voucher program has played out in Washington D.C.

• In a new report, the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education highlighted “school interventions that work” to improve low-performing schools.

• There’s been a lot of talk at the federal level about Every Student Succeeds, the major federal policy governing K-12 public education, whose predecessor was No Child Left Behind. The Government Accountability Office issued a report about the changes being made to the policy by the Department of Education under the new administration.

• California needs to submit a plan to the federal government that lays out how it will comply with Every Student Succeeds, but groups at the state level are still working out some disagreements. (EdSource)

• On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee rejected Democrats’ efforts to restore more than $2 billion in teacher training grants as part of legislation that cuts Education Department funding.

Clarification: San Diego Unified offers the GATE program in more than 135 schools in the district and the GATE seminar for highly gifted students in around 40 schools. A previous version of this story misstated the number of schools that offer the GATE program.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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