K-12 honors access has implications

A new nationwide study found students of color lack access to gifted and honors programs.

by Brian Edwards

Students of color are underrepresented in gifted student programs nationwide, and a new study points to a lack of diversity in teachers as one reason for the gap.
Vanderbilt University researchers studied the number of students of color in gifted programs and found a lack of diversity — particularly when it came to Latino and black students — in elementary and secondary education. Minnesota high schools and the University of Minnesota are working to eliminate a persistent educational gap in the state’s schools, but numbers show the divide still exists.
The study showed that when gifted programs require teacher referrals to test into advanced programs, students of color are less likely to be recommended.
Those findings held steady even when the researchers controlled for factors such as test scores and prior academic achievement, said Jason Grissom, co-author of the study and associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt.
The race of the recommending teacher is a contributing factor to these results, he said.
“For black students, if you have a black teacher, your probability [of referral to a program] is higher,” Grissom said, adding that referral-based processes are highly subjective.
The findings, he said, suggest a ripple effect through young students’ academic careers. When students miss out on an opportunity in their education, they might have lower motivation and less success later on, he said.
Minneapolis’ Outlook
Minneapolis Public Schools, one of the largest public school districts in the state, is aware of research like Grissom’s and set out nearly seven years ago to change course on the educational gap, said Melanie Crawford, director of talent development and advanced academics for MPS.
Crawford said this choice has led MPS to expand their definition of what they call an advanced learner. Advanced learning is characterized by either exceptional academic performance or the potential to excel in school, she said.
Students are automatically tested in second grade to see if they are advanced learners, which helps avoid referral biases at the heart of the Vanderbilt study. Students can be referred in kindergarten, first, third and fourth grade, Crawford said.
During referral years, parents and teachers are asked to look for certain types of behavior, like high levels of reasoning and logic, that studies have shown indicate gifted students despite low test scores, Crawford said. 
Behaviors, like turning in homework on time and receiving good grades, aren’t always the indicators that educators once thought they were, she said.
“Kids develop at different rates,” she said.
Though the program hasn’t existed long enough to reveal reliable results, she said the last group of second graders who tested into the advanced learners program was made up of nearly 48 percent students of color.
Old systems still felt at University
Current University honors students echoed Grissom’s study and said they felt that their early participation in accelerated programs played a part in their acceptance into the University Honors Program.
Biomedical engineering junior Elizabeth Moy, who is half Chinese, said the positive and encouraging community of her extracurricular accelerated learning programs pushed her to work harder in school. 
She said the other students in these activities were predominately white.
Moy said she believed that being a part of those communities at a young age helped with her acceptance into UHP.
Kristen Gjesdahl, an architecture senior who is Chinese, said she has noticed a lack of diversity before in an honors course. 
“I had an honors recitation, and there were only seven people in our class,” she said, “I was obviously not white, and then there was one other girl who was Indian.”
The UHP’s demographics mirror Gjesdahl’s experience.
About 18 percent of students in the honors program are students of color. Black students make up only about 2.5 percent, close to half of the percentage of black students that make up the overall school population. Hispanic students account for about 3 percent of the program.
These numbers lag far behind state and the broader University demographics, which serve as a benchmark in studies like Grissom’s.
Still, the program has retained first-year students of color at a higher percentage than the overall UHP population every year since 2008 – except for 2012.
Physics Professor Serge Rudaz, founding director of UHP, said the program, as part of the University, has the same diversity goals as the school as a whole.
The program purposefully seeks out “atypical” students because not every student progresses in the same way, he said.
Rachelle Hernandez, associate vice provost for enrollment management and director of admissions, said the program focuses on a “holistic review” of students to account for factors that could be missed in their grades or test scores, including geographic and racial background.
“We’re really looking at the lens from where a student comes and what experiences they have had,” she said. “You really have to peel back the layers.”
Many students grow academically when they arrive at the University, and the program allows them to apply after their freshman year, she said.
Aditya Parikh, an economics sophomore who is Indian, said the opportunity to focus on intellectual curiosity and discussion has been one of the biggest benefits of the honors program.
For some students, like Parikh, the honors program doesn’t only define his time at the University but represents a large reason to attend.
“It’s definitely one of the main reasons I chose to come to this University over some of the other options I was looking at,” Parikh said.