New York’s gifted program is at the center of a new round of diversity debates. Here’s how it works.

A proposal to eliminate gifted programs to help integrate New York City schools is sparking intense debate

The programs are almost a reverse image of citywide enrollment: Only 21% of students in the programs are black or Hispanic, compared with 66% citywide. 

Gifted education is seen as a magnet for enticing middle-class and white families to enroll in the public school system, rather than flee for the suburbs or choose private schools — which makes eliminating them a politically explosive issue. Leaders in communities of color have also called for more gifted programs to help prepare more children for elite middle and high schools

The School Diversity Advisory Group, which was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to propose ideas to increase integration, says there are other ways to educate advanced learners. Instead of the current programs, which separate students into whole schools or different classrooms, the group recommended school-wide models that are more inclusive and diverse. 

If you’re just catching up with the news, here’s a guide to the basics about New York City’s gifted programs as they stand now. 

How do you get in? It depends on the type of program. 

Most students in gifted attend a district-wide or citywide program. To get into those programs, students must take a standardized test. There are two parts to the test: One part is nonverbal and tests students reasoning skills by, for example, completing a pattern. The other part tests comprehension and may require students to listen to directions and complete a task or recall words.

Students with the highest scores, a 97 or above, are eligible for citywide programs, which are open to children regardless of where they live. In a citywide school, every student is in the gifted program. Because they are so sought-after, often times the schools only admit students who earn the highest score on the admission test.

Students who score at least 90 on the test are eligible for a districtwide program. Students who live in the district where those programs are located receive priority for admission. These programs are usually housed within a school that also offers general education. 

The main entry point for these programs is kindergarten, so students take the admissions test when they’re about 4 years old. Students tend to remain in the program through elementary school, but there is some attrition and parents can opt to test their children again for the few open slots available in first, second, and third grade. 

Much like the debate over the exam for the city’s specialized high schools, experts trace the disparities in gifted back to the use of a single test. They say tests for such young children aren’t reliable, and are likely measuring the advantages they’ve had early in life, rather than ability. Some families also have the time and resources to pay for test prep, while other families may not even learn about the entrance requirement until it’s too late. 

There is another type of gifted program that does not require a test. Those start in third grade, rather than kindergarten. Admission is based on a mix of factors, including report card grades and teacher recommendations. They are open to students district wide. 

Who takes the test? More than 15,000 students took the admissions test last year, but the city’s wealthiest school districts often are home to the most students vying for gifted admission. Last year in District 2, which includes the Upper East Side, almost 2,000 students took the gifted test for kindergarten admission.

Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented. In 2017-18, 17% of testers were black and 20% were Hispanic. Another 64% of test-takers were white or Asian.

Who scores high enough to enroll? Only 7 and 10% of black and Hispanic testers, respectively, scored high enough for admission to a program in 2017-18. That’s compared with 43% of white testers and 40% of Asian testers.

How big is gifted enrollment? Though the proposal to eliminate gifted programs has already generated intense backlash, the number of enrolled students is just a sliver of the overall school population. 

Across the city, about 16,000 students are enrolled in some type of elementary school gifted program. 

Most children, about 14,000, attend a districtwide program. There are five citywide schools, which enroll about 2,000 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. 

Another 176 students are in programs that start in third grade. 

Does everyone get a spot? Not usually. There are typically more students who qualify than there are seats available. Last year, 7,950 students earned a test score that qualified them for admission, and 5,700 applied for a seat. In the end, about 3,700 were given admission offers. 

Where are the programs? There are some gaping disparities in the availability of these programs. 

District 20, including the Bay Ridge neighborhood in Brooklyn, offers seven schools with gifted programs. In 2017-18, there were more than 1,300 students enrolled in those programs.The district is about 60% white and Asian. 

By contrast, District 7 in the South Bronx has no district-wide programs. In the 2017-18 school year, there were about 36 students enrolled in classes beginning in third grade. About 96% of students in that district are black or Hispanic.

There are none of the most competitive, citywide programs in the Bronx. 

Programs starting in third grade are available in Districts 3, 7, 9, 12, 16, 19, 23 and 29.

Programs in some communities of color steadily disappeared after the city moved to test-based admissions in the early 2000s because not enough students took the tests and qualified for admission. However, since the city opened its third grade programs in 2016, there is no district without gifted offerings.

What gets taught? There is no standard in New York City, with more than 80 schools offering gifted classes. The education departments describes gifted as offering “specialized instruction and enrichment opportunities” for “exceptional” students. 

In such a large system, differences abound among classrooms, said Celia Oyler, a professor at Teachers College who studies how to make classrooms inclusive and challenging for all kinds of learners.

“You can go into a gifted and talented classroom and see amazing, project-based, interdisciplinary, multi-level, challenging, supportive, instruction,” she said. “You can also go into a gifted and classroom with a very narrow curriculum and there’s really no difference in anything, but children learn at a more rapid pace.” 

James Borland, a Teachers College professor who studies gifted education, questioned whether the programs are uniformly high quality or even that distinguishable for general education classes. 

“The fact that the curriculum is very weak in lots of gifted programs — or the fact that it’s not that different — it’s a problematic situation,” he has previously told Chalkbeat