‘Gifted Programs’ Are Often Biased Against Girls and Minorities

“Gifted programs” in schools are designed to provide additional coursework at a faster pace for students who have a particularly high aptitude for academics. Some students really thrive in these environments, and it’s no surprise why. We shouldn’t assume that every child is alike in terms of  academic skill and interest level, and students are more likely to enjoy their work if it meets them on their level.

But there’s a serious problem with many of these programs: Many groups of students, including black, Hispanic and female students are often less likely to be placed in these classes.

Students who find themselves in classes that don’t meet their needs, or who are given materials that aren’t challenging enough, can find themselves frustrated and disenchanted with their own education. By leaving students out of accelerated programs, we deny them the opportunity to excel at something they may well enjoy and benefit from. And we also undermine our own aims of developing as diverse and well-educated a population as possible.

Looking at the numbers

As Susan Dynarski points out at the New York Times, the numbers on gifted program enrollment tell a striking story. White students are around twice as likely as black students to be enrolled in gifted programs, and a similar disparity exists between white and Hispanic students. (Asian students are typically enrolled at similar or higher rates compared to white students.)

Many will simply assume that this is because, for whatever reason, white students are on average better fits for the gifted program. But researchers have found that even if you control for test scores and socioeconomic status, black students are still disproportionately left out of gifted programs.

The research suggests that teacher discretion, particularly when a black student’s teacher is not also black, may be a significant factor causing the disparity.

Another study that came out last September tested these ideas by taking teacher discretion out of the selection process entirely for the gifted programs by instituting universal screening for all students to determine their aptitude. The researchers found that by testing all students, rather than relying on teachers to recommend students for the selection test, the numbers of girls, black and Hispanic students, students learning English, and students from low-income households admitted into the gifted program all rose significantly.

Generally speaking, the case of discrimination against girls in gifted programs is a mixed bag. For example, though the study above indicates that girls are unfairly left out of gifted programs, the New York Times has previously reported that girls were the majority in some New York City gifted programs.

But controlled tests have also found that teachers were more likely to say a hypothetical student, based on fabricated student profiles, would be a good fit for a gifted program if the student was given a male name rather than a female name. So there may indeed be some bias against girls entering these programs, even if it is not uniform across all school districts.

What’s the solution?

On the purely academic side, if we want to reduce the numbers of students who are unnecessarily excluded from gifted programs, we may have to take teacher discretion out of the equation entirely and rely on universal testing. However, this can be very expensive.

Though an imperfect solution, educating teachers about their susceptibility to implicit biases, which may cause them to overlook certain students for gifted programs, could help to reduce the disparity.

But this one case of bias in gifted program admissions should also affect the way we view society more generally, particularly in terms of our nation and economy as a “meritocracy.” This is the idea that our social and economic inequalities are okay, as long as they reflect inequality based on the unequal levels of merit between individuals.

But even in the purest possible case of determining this elusive kind of “merit” – determining which students will thrive in a gifted program – it turns out we are still subject to serious mistakes and prejudices. This should cause us to take our judgments of “merit” less seriously, and incline us more towards equality.

Photo Credit: U. S. Department of Education (edited)


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Joon m.
Past Member 2 years ago

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Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran2 years ago


Fi T.
Past Member 2 years ago

No more discrimination

Marie W.
Marie W2 years ago

No escape from sexism.

Sharon S.
Sharon S2 years ago

Very informative article, sad but true.

Sherry Kohn
Sherry Kohn2 years ago


Will Rogers
Will Rogers2 years ago

I presume this is America? I don't even have to read the article to find out. I can guess what this is saying. So then I read it, surprise surprise! Am I a prophet or what? I should work as a fortune teller, I really nailed this one! And the thing is...the only Americans tha non Americans respect are people of colour such as Muhammed Ali, Aretha, Beyoncé, all your excellent black musicians and art forms such as Jazz, soul, etc. We know They are disadvantaged while inferior white male talent is elevated. It's as plain as Serena having to be coached by her father. And Music and Sports are just the tip of the iceberg, if they gave black and female geniuses the chance they would probably come up with world changing Ideas. Look at what they've done in spite of the collective hate against them, imagine what they could do if the system was behind them!

Sheri K.
Sheri K2 years ago

My daughters' GATE admission was based on the California STAR test administered at their school. Seemed fair enough. Lots of girls in the class.

Annie Y.
Past Member 2 years ago

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