In Houston's Gifted Program, Critics Say Blacks And Latinos Are Overlooked

Originally published on November 15, 2015 8:43 pm

Fernando Aguilar has five kids and named his only son after his hero, Isaac Newton.

"I looked up to him and so does my son, and hopefully one day we can make contributions to society like he did," says Aguilar.

Isaac's in third grade at Herrera Elementary School in Houston. Aguilar thinks his 8-year-old is a smarty, just like the famous physicist: "I think he's going to be a lot smarter than I am."

But when the local school tested Isaac in kindergarten for the gifted and talented program, he didn't qualify.

And Houston's enrollment statistics indicate that Hispanic students like Isaac and African-American students would more likely be identified as gifted if they were white or Asian. That's a trend across the country.

Aguilar is stretched thin between his job building servers for a software company and finishing his college degree in statistics. So, getting to spend time alone with Isaac is really special, but finding time to get involved with his son's school is difficult. Aguilar knows the gifted and talented program exists at Herrera Elementary, though he wasn't aware the school was testing Isaac.

Donna Ford, at Vanderbilt University, thinks that put Isaac at a disadvantage. She's been researching gifted education for decades, and when it comes to Houston's program she says, "I think it's a clear case of segregation, gifted education being segregated by race and income."

Houston school leaders asked Ford to take a close look at their enrollment in the program, and she gave it a failing grade. "Racial bias has to be operating, inequities are rampant. Discrimination does exist whether intentional or unintentional," she told the school board in May of this year.

Ford found that both Hispanic and black students are underrepresented in gifted programs and that black students are missing out the most. She also found that about half the seats in those programs go to higher-income students, even though the majority of the district is poor.

Ford calls it "a waste of a huge number of students' gifts and talents."

Ford says Houston's entire process is laced with problems. She's seen this in other districts and has ideas on how to improve it, starting with the test.

Houston uses an exam that some educators consider culturally biased, so it may fail to identify a student like Isaac as gifted.

Also, teacher recommendations carry a lot of weight, but can be subjective.

And Ford worries that because the whole selection process is point-based, some families can strategize to get their kids in the program. "Knowing the system, working the system, using that social capital, it does advantage you," she says.

Parents in the know can find tutorials online. Some even spend $150 for test materials. Meanwhile, other families have no idea the gifted program even exists.

And Adam Stephens says he wants to change that. He's the person at the Houston Independent School District in charge of advanced academics, and says there's no sacred cows when it comes to making changes for the better.

"We're looking at the testing that we use," Stephens says. "We're looking at how we identify students at the campuses, and if it feels like it's really going to allow us to really meet the needs of students in HISD, then it's something that we're committed to moving forward."

And as for Isaac, the district says it will test him for the gifted program again this fall.

Read more about gifted students from NPR Ed's lead blogger, Anya Kamenetz.

Copyright 2015 KUHF-FM. To see more, visit http://www.houstonpublicmedia.org.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This story begins with an outrageous proposition. It's that in any given school the gifted kids are overwhelmingly white. Few people in 2015 would accept the idea that white kids are smarter than others, yet many school systems seem to act as if that is true.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Studies show white students along with Asians are more likely to be labeled gifted and talented than their black or Hispanic classmates. In a moment, we'll talk with NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz about why this is happening, and we'll look at possible solutions.

MONTAGNE: But first, Laura Isensee of Houston Public Media brings us one family's story.

LAURA ISENSEE: Fernando Aguilar has five kids, and he named his only son after his hero, Isaac Newton.

FERNANDO AGUILAR: I looked up to him, and so does my son. You know, hopefully one day we can make contributions to society like he did.

ISENSEE: His son, Isaac, is 8 years old and in the third grade. And, like the famous physicist, Aguilar thinks his son is pretty smart.

AGUILAR: I think he's going to be a lot smarter than I am.

ISENSEE: Aguilar is stretched thin between his job building servers for a software company and finishing his college degree in statistics, so it's special when they've got time to play together at the park.

ISAAC: It was fun.

ISENSEE: It's hard for Aguilar to be involved in Isaac's school. When Isaac was in kindergarten, he was tested for gifted and talented classes. Aguilar didn't know that was happening. He knows the gifted program exists but not all the ins and outs. Back then, Isaac didn't qualify as gifted, but enrollment statistics indicate that black students and Hispanic students like Isaac would more likely be identified as gifted if they were white or Asian.

DONNA FORD: I think it's a clear case of segregation, gifted education being segregated by race and by income.

ISENSEE: So Houston school leaders asked Donna Ford from Vanderbilt University to look at their enrollment. She's worked in the field of gifted education for decades.

FORD: Racial bias has to be operating, inequities are rampant. Discrimination does exist whether intentional or unintentional.

ISENSEE: Ford found that both Hispanic and black students are underrepresented, and that black students are missing out the most. And she says that about half the seats go to higher-income students even though the majority of the district is poor.

FORD: That's just a waste, a waste of a huge number of students' gifts and talents.

ISENSEE: Ford has seen this in other places, and she's got ideas on how to improve it. Ford says Houston's entire process is laced with problems. It starts with the test. Houston uses an exam that some educators consider culturally biased. So it may fail to identify a student like Isaac as gifted. Teacher recommendations carry a lot of weight, but they can be subjective. And Ford worries that because the whole system is point-based, families can strategize.

FORD: Knowing the system, working the system, using that social capital, it does advantage you.

ISENSEE: Parents in the know can find tutorials online. Here's one from testingmom.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF TESTINGMOM.COM VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Even kindergartners have to solve paper-folding puzzles.

ISENSEE: Some parents even spend $150 on test materials. Meanwhile, other families have no idea the gifted program even exists, and the Houston School District says it wants to change that.

ADAM STEPHENS: I think it's safe to say at this point that there's no sacred cows.

ISENSEE: Adam Stephens is in charge of advanced academics at the Houston School District.

STEPHENS: We're looking at the testing that we use. We're looking at how we identify students at the campuses, and if we feel like it's going to allow us to really meet the needs of the students in HISD then it's something that we're committed to moving forward.

ISENSEE: And as for Isaac, the district says it will test him for the gifted program again this fall. For NPR News, I'm Laura Isensee in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.