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There are way more gifted kids from disadvantaged backgrounds than we usually find

Gifted and talented programs at most school districts that have them disproportionately feature kids from higher-income families. There are a lot of factors behind that, but new research from David Card and Laura Giuliano, who studied "one of the largest and most diverse" school districts in the nation (the actual district is anonymized), shows that a fairly simple administrative tweak can greatly close the gap.

Depressingly, however, the research also shows that even though the tweak was extremely successful, it was abandoned rapidly in the face of budgetary pressure, and all the gains for low-income kids have since been erased.

The rise and fall of low-income gifted kids

The basic story is that the district in question used to rely on an informal referral process wherein teachers would get certain first- and second-grade kids tested for admission to the gifted and talent program. Then the pool of recommended kids was narrowed by IQ testing as well as by evaluations for motivation, creativity, and adaptability. The district offered free IQ testing, but affluent parents also could (and did) pay for private psychologists to administer extra tests to kids whose parents wanted them to try again if they fell short.

Card & Giuliano

The result, as you might expect, was a huge gap in the socioeconomic status of the admitted students.

Then, starting in 2006, the district changed the system. In addition to the informal referrals, it gave all second-graders an aptitude test and pushed everyone who met certain thresholds on to the next level of screening. This resulted in a small increase in the number of affluent students who qualified as gifted and talented and a large increase in the number of low-income G&T students. And it was all achieved without any relaxation in G&T standards. The number of Hispanic students increased by 130 percent and the number of black students by 80 percent.

A huge triumph!

But then it all unraveled in subsequent years. Universal screening meant conducting more IQ tests, and the extra 1,300 annual tests required money for overtime. When the recession hit, the school district starting cutting back overtime, and enrollment in the G&T program started to fall. In 2011, to save money, it eliminated universal screening entirely and went back to the old system that had systematically undercounted promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The result? Promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds are now just as undercounted as they were back in 2005, before the reform.