Washington Elementary School

Children play at Washington Elementary School on the first day of school in August.

Following a nationwide trend, Norman Public Schools’ Black and Hispanic students are significantly underrepresented in the district’s gifted and talented program, NPS data shows.

The district’s gifted program offers students at all grade levels various enrichment opportunities. But like gifted offerings at districts across the nation, NPS’ program shows significant disparities between students of different races.

While white and Asian students are well represented in the district’s program — and Native students are better represented than they are in other states — Black and Hispanic students are disproportionately underrepresented in that same program.

The problem has been well-discussed at a national level — where Black and Hispanic students also lack the representation their white and Asian peers find in gifted programs — but that doesn’t mean it’s not complex.

Everything from teacher demographics to inequities in standardized test development contributes to a system where Black students don’t receive the same opportunities as their peers, according to research from Purdue University’s Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute.

“Oklahoma was a bright spot with regard to Native representation,” said Marcia Gentry, director of the institute and one of the co-authors of ‘Access Denied,’ a study examining inequities in gifted education. “When we started the ‘Access Denied’ report, we hoped to find places across the country where it was good for African American students, where it was good for Latino students, and by and large, we didn’t find much of that.”

The numbers

It’s not just that the overall number of Black students in Norman’s gifted program is smaller than the number of white students in the program — that’s to be expected, since white students make up 54.23% of this year’s entire student body, while Black students are 6.84% of the student population.

When the comparison is adjusted for each demographic population, Black students’ Gifted and Talented placement is lagging behind that of every other student demographic.

The numbers below were achieved via Transcript analysis of district-provided data.

Asian and white students consistently lead the pack of students identified for Gifted and Talented — in the current school year, about 45.5% of NPS’ Asian students and about one-third of the district’s white students are in the gifted program. Comparatively, only 11.74% of NPS’ Black students are in the gifted program.

Hispanic students are also underrepresented, but have seen growth in representation over the last five years. During the 2016-17 school year, nearly 13% of NPS’ Hispanic students were enrolled in gifted and talented; this year, that percentage is up to 16.21%.

Black students’ representation shows smaller and less steady growth — the number has hovered at and slightly above 10% over six years now.

The underrepresentation issue is far from unique to NPS. “Access Denied” estimates that nationally, nearly three of every four Black students “missing” from gifted education, meaning they either don’t attend a school with gifted programs or were never identified for program participation.

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio announced in early October that the city’s public school system, the largest in the nation, is completely reimagining its gifted program due to racial inequities.

The problem

The gifted program touches a significant portion of NPS students — in the current school year, data shows just under 28% of NPS students are in the gifted program.

In some districts, the representation problem is due to a lack of existing gifted and talented programs — no student of any race has access.

But NPS has a robust gifted program that involves a program coordinator and committee — made up of school staff and parents — at each school site to evaluate and uphold the program. The district provides gifted learning tailored to grade level and student — in early education, gifted coordinators will come into classrooms and work with all the students, while high schoolers will go to specific classes or clubs to learn or compete at the appropriate level.

The district provides a wide net to catch students who might be interested — NPS’ school sites use a scoring matrix to determine whether a student is qualified to join the program, taking a number of factors into consideration when scoring a student. The matrices include factors like a cognitive ability exam, achievement tests that can add extra points, a recommendation from a teacher, community member or parent, and more.

At a district level, staff evaluate the gifted program and receive approval from the school board every year. In the last few years, the district has added onto its existing gifted plan to make the program more equitable, NPS Director of Gifted Advanced Placement Kristi Gray said.

The scoring matrices now take into account whether students are bilingual and whether they qualify for free or reduced lunch (a socioeconomic measure). Gray said in identifying student talent, the district is ensuring that students can be measured on activities that take place at school, providing a more level field for students who can’t afford or attend extracurricular activities.

When talking broadly about matrix systems that may qualify students for gifted programs, Gentry said it’s also important to remember that matrices may not take cultural differences into consideration. What’s valued by the school system may not reflect what’s valued in a student’s home or culture, disqualifying some students of color from consideration.

“A matrix is a situation where we’re pretending to be objective — we want the final score or the final number or the final identification to be unquestionable, but what we fail to recognize is that the tests are developed by people, and that has error,” she said.

The racial discrepancies are separate from — but heavily interact with — the issue of poverty (though even at higher socioeconomic levels, students of color are underrepresented, Gentry said).

“Access Denied” shows that Title I schools — sites where at least 40% of students qualify for federal meal subsidy — identify gifted students at only 58% the rate that non-Title I schools do.

Seventeen of Norman’s 24 school sites are Title I schools, according to the district’s site (a district spokesperson said Friday that NPS does not yet have student numbers broken down by free and reduced lunch qualifications, but that those numbers can be provided in the future).

Poverty presents a number of barriers to getting identified as a gifted student, Gentry said. Everything from living in a neighborhood without ready access to nearby food sources or a library, to having all parents working and having to take care of students,

Another issue that plays into the national inequity is the standardized tests many students take to qualify for a program, Gentry said. A study Gentry recently helped conduct showed many of the mainstream tests used to gauge achievement didn’t properly test to ensure that the tests worked equally well across student races.

“What we found was that these tests yielded disparities almost when they were developed,” she said. “And now we take them to the schools, and we use them to make high stakes decisions about who is and who isn’t ‘gifted,’ and the results are disparate, and we go ‘oh, I wonder why?’”

The solution

Despite the persistent inequities in gifted and talented programs across the nation, the solution isn’t just to get rid of the programs, Gentry said.

Gifted opportunities do have significant benefits for students, she said. Gentry cited a study of 15 Black, Indigenous and Latinx STEM PhD students at a major midwestern research university that showed 14 of them were in gifted programs as children.

“Many were the only person of color in the gifted program,” Gentry said. “That isn’t right, but the fact that they ended up at a major research university despite all of the underrepresentation … we find this over and over qualitatively and quantitatively, so people want to say ‘well, the programs aren’t effective.’ They actually are effective, it’s just that they’re not equitable.”

If gifted programs go away, “wealthier parents with social capital will take their kids elsewhere, and then it further denigrates our public system,” Gentry said.

Currently, the district not only trains gifted coordinators, but has those coordinators provide training for all teachers at their school sites, Gray said. Coordinators help teachers understand what giftedness looks like, and how it’s not just a straight-A student.

When it comes to Black students’ representation in gifted programs, experts seem to agree on one solution: Hire more Black teachers.

According to the Hechinger Report, an education news outlet, a 2016 study found that Black students with Black teachers were just as likely to get into gifted programs as white students, closing the gap between the two student groups.

Generally, white students were twice as likely to get picked for programs as Black students, the study found.

That solution stands out especially starkly at Norman Public Schools, where the most recent data from fall 2020 showed that about 91% of teachers were white. The teacher population doesn’t match student demographics — only 54.23% of this year’s students are white, and that number has dropped each year over the last six.

Stephanie Williams, NPS’ executive director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said the district is actively working to recruit teachers who more accurately reflect the student body. Diversity, equity and inclusion touch every part of NPS, Williams said, and she is regularly in conversation with Gray and with school site gifted coordinators.

Specifically, the district has a recruitment cadre that’s focused on finding, recruiting and retaining a diverse array of teachers with diverse skill sets. The cadre is front and center at any recruiting events or opportunities, Williams said.

The district is also focused on drawing from universities beyond the University of Oklahoma, like Langston University, she said. NPS also has to be “in tune” with how universities are recruiting for their education schools, she said, so that an array of teachers come through the pipeline.

“OU’s in our backyard, and we do have a great partnership with OU, but (we’re) also looking at some of the other universities within the state that we need to get to,” Williams said.

Emma Keith is the editor of The Transcript, where she covers Norman Public Schools and the University of Oklahoma. Reach her at ekeith@normantranscript.com or at @emma_ckeith.

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Emma Keith is the editor of The Norman Transcript, where she also covers Norman Public Schools and The University of Oklahoma. She is a 2019 OU graduate.