Gifted black and Hispanic students in Illinois are not getting the same academic opportunities as their white and Asian peers, yet some school districts are making strides toward being more equitable, according to a new report by One Chance Illinois.
The nonprofit, whose goal is expanding educational options for Illinois' low-income and working-class families, examined gifted education programs in a sampling of unit and elementary school districts showing minority and low-income students are not being given equal opportunity to enroll in gifted programs. Black students comprised 24.6 percent of the student population, and represented 16.3 percent of the gifted population; Hispanic students comprised 36.7 percent of the student population, and represented 17.5 percent of the gifted population; and low-income students comprised nearly 56.9 percent of the student population, and only 32.8 percent of the gifted population.
"We assumed our data would show issues identifying minority children as gifted, however, we were shocked by how much of a gap there really is and the reasons why," said Myles Mendoza, One Chance Illinois executive director.
There has been little to no change in the makeup of students receiving advanced academic support since 2003, the last year Illinois funded gifted education, per the group.
These racial and ethnic disparities highlight school districts are not following best practices when it comes to gifted identification, which earned the state a D-minus grade, per the report.
Nationally, among the reasons for the underrepresentation of minority and low-income students in gifted programs are the use of subjective teacher referrals in the identification process and lack of parent advocacy, experts say.
"When given an enriching academic environment and emotional support, gifted students despite their background, go on to achieve incredible things," said Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, director of Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development and professor of education and social policy. "It's our responsibility to close the gap for these kids."
School districts that have developed more complex gifted and talented screening processes -- such as Naperville Unit District 203 and Elgin Area School District U-46 -- aimed at identifying underserved populations have had greater success in improving access to gifted programming, per the report.
Universally screening also highlights the disparities even more, said April Wells, U-46's coordinator of gifted programs, academies, world languages & Advanced Placement.
The state's second-largest school district serving more 40,000 students adopted universal screening in the 2012-13 school year. Students are assessed in third grade to determine gifted and talented program placement, and again in sixth grade to measure progress.
The district offers a talent development program even before students enter the gifted program in fourth grade.
" ... So students are not labeled gifted, but it provides an opportunity for students to have exposure to that more creative and critical reasoning skills," Wells said. "It gives them access to developing those skills prior to screening. Once they are in a program, we continue to provide instructional support and activities aimed at that level of readiness."
Of U-46's more than 14,800 students in fourth through eighth grades, 1,130 students are enrolled in gifted and talented programs this year. That includes, 437 Latino, 383 white, 248 Asian, 23 black, four American Indian, and 441 low-income students.
"We use a contextualized identification process," Wells said. "We look at underrepresented populations ... what we do to have a more equitable identification process, we compare those students to their peers from comparable backgrounds. We look at students based on their level of readiness, their ability to take on core content out of sync with their chronological age, grade level, (or by) single subject."
District 203 has administered cognitive abilities tests to all third- and fourth-graders for 15 years. Of the district's 2,069 gifted students enrolled this year, 1,235 are white, 651 are Asian, 61 are Latino, 18 are black, 2 are American Indian, and only 76 are from low-income families.
Officials said they have updated the literacy and math gifted placement tests to set a uniform standard across grade levels. Students must score 10 out of 20 points in each test.
"That allows all students to be able to demonstrate that they should be in the gifted program," Tim Wierenga, District 203 assistant superintendent for assessment and analytics. "Other districts have used our model to set up their own."
This year, the district also has introduced a gifted committee to oversee an appeals process for students who didn't score the minimum required on the cognitive tests to be placed in the gifted program.
"It allows students that don't fit into that testing box to kind of make a case or rationale for why they should also be included," Wierenga said.
Empowering teachers who work with students day-to-day to better identify how students are progressing is the other piece of the puzzle.
"It's that personal touch that really kind of makes it all come together," Wierenga said.
U-46 requires teachers to undergo a state-approved gifted education seminar and receive training on cultural awareness.
"When we look at the needs of underrepresented learners, the cultural challenges, some of the supports that families and students benefit from are those supplemental pieces," Wells said. "When we think of language, we don't approach it like struggling. We do have responsive services for students who are still acquiring the English language."
Parental involvement also is key. With the increasing diversity in the suburbs, school districts must improve communication about such programs that may not be universally understood by people coming from different cultural backgrounds, educators say.
"We have to understand what does engagement look like across cultures," Wells said. "Families from all backgrounds and experiences are advocates for their learners. Sometimes it's just knowing what questions to ask, and being provided a platform."
District 203 has a strong gifted and talented parent group that is engaged throughout the process.
"That's the big piece of it," Wierenga said. "We've held parent nights for the last couple of years, given large-scale presentations to the parents to explain it. We've updated our website to try to have as much as we can for people to find. We try to put it in newsletters."
Some educators and state associations are pushing for restoring state funding for gifted education programs.
"We have a ways to go," Wierenga said. "This is a good opportunity for us as a state to make some improvements. The best way we can improve is for us to be watching each and every student and determine what is their place in our system and provide those opportunities for them."