Friday, April 25, 2008

Ability grouping may matter most for gifted black kids

While the national obsession with testing is often frustrating for teachers, students and parents alike, it does have a silver lining: We are now awash in data on student performance.

These data points are showing some interesting things. According to a recent article in Education Week (go to, then search for "Black-White Gap Widens Faster for High Achievers;" the URL is too long to type easily in Blogger), a series of papers presented at the American Education Research Association meeting this year showed that the achievement gap between high-scoring black and white students grows faster as these children progress through school than the gap between lower-scoring black and white students.

The results are pretty clear. The first study Ed Week mentions, by Sean Reardon, a professor of education and sociology at Stanford, analyzed the findings from the 7,000-student Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (which tracked kids from kindergarten to fifth grade). Reardon found that the black-white achievement gap grew twice as fast among students who scored above the mean as it did among those who scored below the mean. (A link to a PDF of the paper is included from the Ed Week site).

The second study, from economists Steven Rivkin and Erik Hanushek (incidentally, one of my personal favorite researchers), tracked 800,000 Texas children from 3rd grade through 8th grade. They grouped the children into four quartiles based on 3rd grade reading scores, and then compared later test results. They found that the higher the initial scores, the more the scores between black and white students diverged on later tests.

A third study, by Harvard researcher Lindsay Page, sheds a bit of light on these findings. She discovered that differences between schools, as opposed to within schools, contributed more to the black-white achievement gap in recent years. As she noted, "the cost in achievement to black students from attending racially segregated schools increased over the last three decades of the 20th century."

What does this mean? It's actually an important point. It's fashionable to lament that in schools with extensive ability grouping, white students are over-represented, and black students are under-represented, in the top tracks (for an example of one such lament, see this op-ed from doctoral student Beth Rhodes that ran recently in the Roanoke Times). But the reality is that, over the past 30 years, there has been almost no change in the proportion of black and white students actually attending the same schools in order to be unfairly transferred into certain tracks in the first place.

According to Page's study, between 1971 and 1999, the average white student attended a school that was 7-8% black, and the average black student attended a school that was about 60% black. For a variety of reasons -- too many to get into here -- Americans have largely maintained patterns of residential segregation, which then correspond to school segregation. Given recent Supreme Court decisions that limit circumstances in which schools can take race into account for enrollment, this is unlikely to change soon.

(I do want to add, though, that the issue is more complicated than people often think. Last year I had the pleasure of visiting Louisville's Central High School, a fairly strong school which has long played a prominent role in the city's African American community. In the midst of Louisville's desegregation push, Central was required to limit its enrollment to 50% black students, which required it turn down many neighborhood kids, kids whose parents had fond memories of Central, kids drawn to its special programs, etc., all because these kids were black. But the school had to take any white kid who walked in the door. A judge eventually said enough is enough and let its enrollment reflect the make-up of its application pool).

Anyway, Central High School's reasonable results aside, many predominantly black schools are plagued by poor discipline, bad teachers, low expectations, and have a high proportion of students whose families do not particularly value education. These schools often look less like safe, orderly Central, and more like Malcolm X. Shabazz High School in Newark, whose metal detectors and guards, one parent once told me, made the place seem harder to get into than an airport. At Shabazz, in 2007, only 14% of 11th graders passed the math section of New Jersey's High School Proficiency Assessment, which is required to graduate.

For a variety of lamentable reasons, the average academic performance at an average predominantly black school is lower than the average academic performance at a predominantly white school. This affects all children, but it affects one particular group in a particularly horrible way: gifted black students.

As Reardon notes, "the average black kindergarten student with a given level of math or reading skill attends a school with lower mean cognitive skill than the average similarly-skilled white kindergarten student. Initially high-skilled black students will be in schools where they are farther above the median student than similarly-skilled white students. If curriculum and instruction in schools are tailored to the median student in the school, then high skill black students will, on average, receive less challenging curriculum and instruction than their similar white peers, leading potentially to differential rates of achievement growth between such students."

This is a critical point. People who complain about racial disparities in ability-grouping within schools are talking about integrated schools. The majority of black students do not attend highly integrated schools. In an all-black school, it should go without saying that all the tracks, high to low, will be all-black.

And it turns out that creating those tracks may be more important than anyone previously realized. A student who scores at the 98th percentile on tests, who is forced to attend classes aimed at the 40th percentile day-in and day-out, will become frustrated and bored. She surely won't learn as much as she could in a class aimed at the 90th percentile. Would it surprise anyone if, two years hence, her test scores have fallen in comparison to those of a white student also attending a non-tracked class that's, nonetheless, aimed at a different median score?

As the Davidsons and I wrote in Genius Denied, "Foisting 'equality' to the exclusion of excellence on schools hurts bright children, but it does not hurt all bright children equally." Better-off, better-connected parents can make other arrangements when the public schools fail to challenge their gifted kids. Gifted minority kids, and gifted poor kids, are often stuck with the schools they get.

That's why gifted education is most important for these kids. "They don't deserve to be abandoned to boredom and underachievement to satisfy someone else's agenda," we wrote. These new studies show just how dangerous that abandonment truly is.


Anonymous said...

Laura wrote:

As the Davidsons and I wrote in Genius enied, "Foisting 'equality' to the exclusion of excellence on schools hurts bright children, but it does not hurt all bright children equally." Better-off, better-connected parents can make other arrangements when the public schools fail to challenge their gifted kids. Gifted minority kids, and gifted poor kids, are often stuck with the schools they get.

That's why gifted education is most important for these kids. "They don't deserve to be abandoned to boredom and underachievement to satisfy someone else's agenda," we wrote. These new studies show just how dangerous that abandonment truly is.


There has been SO much written, discussed and studied about black achievement. Don't get me wrong, I'm a liberal and completely agree.

But I'm always left shaking my head. How come we don't apply these same standards to twice exceptional children? Our best and brigthest are surely the No Children Left Behind. We have PG
2e kids languishing in classes too easy for them because as long as they're making B's and can read years beyond their chronological age, who cares? Why is it so okay to discriminate against this group?

Take the above two paragraphs and pretend the group discussed here is not a black one but a 2e one. Take a close look. It should apply equally. And it doesn't. The big question we have to keep asking ourselves over and over is...WHY?

Lack of awareness? Then educate! Lack of resources? Demand them! Unfortunately the advocacy falls on the shoulders of the parents themselves and that's unforgivable. Parents who feel vulnerable and scared and afraid any noise will only alienate school officials more and put their child at even greater risk for hostility in the classroom.

You don't walk into a school, brand new, and automatically find the other parents in your boat. It's not like they're wearing ID tags. You feel alone, isolated. It's easier to slink in with your head down. I know. I've been there. Still am. But what choice do we have?

At least in my case, the fear does not come from shame. I love my daughter, am so proud of her, know she's extraordinary and wouldn't trade her for all the tea in China. She's not the problem. The school is.

Anonymous said...

Our best and brigthest are surely the No Children Left Behind.


Ooops. I'm too sleepy to be anywhere near a computer right now. I meant to say "Our best and brightest are surely The Children Completely Left Behind."

Important distinction.

The Princess Mom said...

You make an excellent point about where the teaching in a classroom is aimed, but it's also important that the gifted students be clustered in the same classroom. Studies have shown the clustering is even more necessary for children of color than it is for white children, and my personal opinion is that the success of single sex classrooms is due to the same sort of mechanism. When you are the only gifted black/white/male/female child in a classroom, you are more likely to try to blend in and dumb yourself down to match the others than you would be if you had some other gifted kids who "looked like you" in the class.

Barbara Ruth Saunders said...

Be careful not to lump together "minority", "poor", and parents who aren't connected. I am a 41 year old, African American. Based upon the demands of my resourceful parents and the support of some advocating teachers, I was IQ-tested at my underperforming public school and, on the basis of those scores, was accepted into a selective private school.

Anonymous said...

I had a major win today at my son's school. My soon is African American and was denied placement in the gifted program here in Va. He was denied until today that is. I find it interesting that at two predominately white schools (one in Ct(high SES area but terrible schools so we moved) and one in Va (high SES suburb)) none of his teachers identified him for enrichment services even when he consistently received 100% on almost every test he was given. I inquired about the services many times and was given the cold shoulder. It wasn't until my son was given the Cogats that he was placed in the screening process. Even with high Cogat scores his Va school claimed he didn't have the verbal evidence for general aptitude program placement so they offered him services just for math. I appealed the decision and I had to have him tested by a licensed PhD and have his WISC IV scores sent to the school. My son scored in the 99.7% percentile on the verbal subtest. He was subsequently interviewed by the English resource teacher and (surprise) he showed the evidence they needed. The English resource teacher claimed my son barely said three words to her the whole year so she didn't know his abilities. I think something is wrong with that picture. I felt his gifted coordinator was rude and unprofessional to me throughout the whole process. I often received one or two word responses to my questions or flippant answers that did not adhere to procedural policy. I documented everything and kept a professional tone in all of our correspondence. During the gifted placement meeting I noticed most of the talking was directed to my bi-racial husband (who never spoke) and not once did they care to look me in the eyes and address me. I am AA and I have a PhD btw.
I just wanted to tell any parent that is going through the same struggle to be strong and advocate for your child. Yes I had the resources to seek alternative enrichment opportunities for my son but even when your child has high ability scores and you live in a high SES area you may have to fight against stereotypes and apathy from administrators who may not be used to seeing gifted black children (or any minority child) walk through their doors.
Now that we won our fight I may take him out of that school and put him in private school. I now feel like their gifted services are not good enough for my child.

Anonymous said...

Typo should be "my son" not "my soon"