Identifying Giftedness as a Public Health Issue

Flora Ichiou Huang, Academic Consultant at Elysian Trust

The issue of lack of equity and diversity in Gifted and Talented (G & T) programs continues to be a hotly debated topic around the nation, as parents in different school districts are demanding reform, while other parents are quick to defend gifted programs and the value of these programs. As usual, New York City has received a great deal of attention, where the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG), a panel appointed by the Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza, released their report Making the Grade II: New Programs for Better Schools this past August, a follow up to their previous report — Making the Grade: The Path to Real Integration and Equity for NYC Public School Students — that was released in February of that year. With the city now implementing drastic budget cuts within the Department of Education (DoE) due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been more cries to eliminate the administration of both the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and the G & T exams, at least for this year.

Despite the panel providing a series of recommendations to both the mayor and the chancellor, who have not committed to any of them, the media attention continues to focus on the SDAG’s recommendations on Gifted and Talented schools and programs. As expected, the same groups fighting to keep the SHSAT as the sole criterion for admissions for the 8 designated Specialized High Schools were out immediately, claiming that the exams used as admissions criteria for the Gifted and Talented schools/programs were fair and objective, as the SHSAT is, despite knowing that there are parents who pay thousands of dollars to prep their child for an exam that was supposed to test for a child’s ability, not competency, and they received the support of many elected officials. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. quickly defended Gifted and Talented programs, submitting an op-ed in the Daily News discussing how he was a beneficiary of these programs.

The one problem that is missing in many of these debates, which I also pointed out in a piece I wrote about the Specialized High School admissions process, is the general public’s lack of understanding of giftedness and the purpose of Gifted and Talented programs, which includes the Specialized High Schools. Giftedness is a special need, or neuro-divergence, that involves children who learn much differently than neurotypical children, and gifted education is a special education program that should be treated no differently than any other special education program. If we do not acknowledge this basic understanding, any discussion of reform in gifted education is pointless.

Since we are discussing issues of inequity, I am proposing we view this issue with a public health and epidemiology lens, where issues of racial disparity with different health issues often exist due to systemic biases and unequal distribution of resources. If we are looking at this topic as a public health issue, then we need to define giftedness as a health condition. Once a child is defined as gifted, how do we best support that child who is? While I was a teacher at Stuyvesant High School, I served as a workgroup member of Young Epidemiology Scholars, an epidemiology curriculum designed for high school students, where students viewed health conditions and health care through a much different lens than traditional medicine. Students began to understand why some issues that were not viewed as health issues actually are, and this includes the issue of identifying giftedness.

According to the National Association of Gifted Children (NAGC), giftedness is defined as showing the ability to be significantly above average for the norm of that child’s age. The giftedness may be manifested in “one or more domains such as; intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership or one of the academic areas such as language arts, science, and mathematics.” A common characteristic in many gifted children is asynchronous development, where children demonstrate uneven development cognitively, emotionally, and physically or an increased aptitude in one subject area but average or below average aptitude in another area, which is why gifted programs that are advanced in all subject areas may not be serving gifted children adequately. Many gifted experts believe that these delays in one or more areas allow children to be extremely advanced in others. Now that we have a better understanding of what giftedness is, how do we best identify children who are, and how does our city’s system adequately support the needs of those children?

Screening is a necessary tool to identify certain health conditions. Many schools partner with dental schools to provide a free dental check-up for all of their students, while other schools provide free eye exams for their students by also partnering with an organization. It is just more cost-effective to check every child at once, instead of waiting for parents to take their child to get the exam. In New York City and other school districts, every child goes through a Turning 5 Evaluation to determine if the child may need any special education services before entering Kindergarten. The purpose of this evaluation is to connect children with services now so that it may not become a larger problem that inhibits a child’s learning years later.

Similarly, the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) and the Naglieri Non-Verbal Ability Test (NNAT), the two exams used by the New York City DoE to qualify for the Gifted and Talented schools and programs, could also be viewed as another screening method. The question is whether we are accurately identifying all children who are gifted through this method, and how valid, reliable, and cost-effective are these exams as a method of screening. We are seeing this right now, as the public is beginning to question the accuracy and significance of the different tests for Covid-19 and the SARS CoV-2 virus that causes it.

In any method of screening in public health, it is important to examine the validity and reliability of the assessment. Validity looks at the accuracy of the testing method, while reliability looks at its consistency of results. A screening method that is valid should not only be able to identify almost every individual with that condition, minimizing as many “False Negatives”, but should also be able to screen out as many “False Positives”, while a method that is reliable determines if those same results will repeat if conducted again.

How would we define False Negatives? False Negatives are children who are actually gifted but not identified as so. In the case of the OLSAT and NNAT exams administered by the Dept. of Education, this includes any child who scored at least a 90 to qualify for a district school or program and a 97 to qualify for one of the five city-wide schools. For many children, the OLSAT/NNAT can be a very intimidating process. A 4-year-old is placed in a room with a complete stranger and asked to answer some questions. The behaviors of a 4-year-old can be very unpredictable, and that child just might not be in a mood to answer questions to someone that s/he has never met.

Some children, especially those who have not attended Pre-K or any other formal early childhood program, may have difficulty sitting still. Telling a child that s/he is taking a test may not help the process either. The NAGC does not recommend testing children before the age of 6 for this reason. The reality is that when the exam is being administered to a 4-year-old, the answers are going to be bubbled in by the adult administering the exam, and, yet, most of the G & T seats are determined when a child is still 4 years old. Younger children exposed to more educational and developmental enrichment experiences will always have more of an advantage to children who have not been, especially if their parents are educated.

As for possible “False Positives”, much of this has been fueled by the insane test prepping that currently exists for an exam that is supposed to assess ability, not competencies and achievements. As with the SHSAT, a whole parallel economy exists to prepare for these exams with prep books, test prep centers, and private tutors who charge thousands of dollars. Even for parents who cannot afford private tutors or test prep programs, they can borrow prep books from the library and drill their child every day for what is, essentially, a special education program designed for children who learn differently.

I once spoke to one private tutor who mentioned that she tells parents that even if their child has the “natural ability” to do well on the exam, they may get edged out by other children who have been prepped, which is why additional prepping would be helpful. This phenomenon has been coined as the “test prep arms race” or “test prep industrial complex”. She dismissed my response about how test-prepping contributes to the lack of equity in these programs and that gifted education is really a special education program. I also told her my son got a total of five minutes of prepping and scored a 99, which she responded that that may be how they used to do it but not anymore. After all, everyone now preps.

This type of prepping, which an educational professional I know once referred to as “inorganic prepping”, is much different than natural, or “organic prepping” that is beneficial for all children, which are things that parents and educators do that indirectly prepare a child for the exam. Examples of organic prepping include asking children questions to increase inquisitiveness, helping them make observations of their everyday surroundings, reading to them, taking them to museums and other settings that initiate play and curiosity, limiting the number of electronics and screen time, and getting them additional services they may need that are provided at no cost through Early Intervention from the Health Department and the Committee of Preschool Special Education from the DoE if the child qualifies. This type of organic prepping helps with the natural development of all young children and may indirectly help a child score higher on the exam, as it allows a child to demonstrate his/her full potential.

No one really knows how effective any of these programs are in helping children score higher, but the idea of drilling a 3 or 4-year-old with workbooks and flashcards for an aptitude exam is not only counter-productive to the natural development of children but winds up placing the child in an environment that s/he may not be suited for. Even if the child is able to score high enough to qualify, parents may have to find additional resources to help their children catch up to the extremely fast pace that many gifted programs follow, where parents continue to hire tutors. That puts an emotional toll on the child, not to mention the child’s self-esteem while setting a precedent that everything can be solved by just hiring a private tutor or a cram program. Prepping a child for the OLSAT and NNAT makes as much sense as prepping a child for the CARS or ADOS-G to rule out if a child is on the Autism Spectrum or the Conner’s CBRS to possibly assess for ADHD. Yet, too many parents feel compelled to do this and are even pressured by their social circles to do so, while some parents do not even know about this exam.

Every year the DoE has more students qualifying for the G & T programs than there are slots available for both their city-wide and district programs. Even if a child scores a 99 on both exams, that child is not guaranteed a spot in one of the city-wide schools, but they are guaranteed a spot in one of the district programs, i.e. their school district has a program. When the city made the decision to centralize the process in 2008 under the Michael Bloomberg/Joe Klein administration, the distribution of gifted programs at the district-level was determined by how well children in that district scored, collectively. As a result, affluent districts such as 2 and 3 are saturated with gifted programs, while District 7 in the South Bronx has no programs, even if a child in that district scored at least a 90 to qualify. This policy had the opposite effect on increasing diversity and equity in gifted programs.

Therefore, a child who would have scored a 95 or 96 on the exams without prepping but wound up scoring 97 because of additional prepping may not get into the city-wide program of his/her parents’ first or second choice but could edge out that child who scored at least a 90 on the exams for a slot in a district program who did not receive any kind of prepping. Similarly, a child who scored at least a 90 without prepping now has to compete with a child who also scored at least a 90 with prepping. Proponents of the Gifted programs argue that the DoE should open up more seats, but is that really the solution?

This intensive prepping, as well as the city’s decision to centralize the screening process, may have also resulted in a drastic shift in one of the G & T schools that had a very large representation of Black and Latinx students. TAG Young Scholars in East Harlem may be one of the most diverse of the five city-wide G & T schools, but its Black and Latinx population decreased by more than half from 80% in 2010 to 31% now, while the Asian population more than doubled from 18% to 41%, and the white population increased from 1% to 17%. Founded as an alternative school with its own admissions test, the school resembles many schools in neighborhoods that have been gentrified, in which the older grades are predominantly Black and Latinx, while the younger grades are predominantly white and Asian. Even the Asian population saw a demographic shift, as the Bengali student population that makes up the majority of Asian students began to see more East Asians and other South Asian groups.

Once a Title I school, which lost its status in 2011, the school’s PTA now has a budget that runs into six figures. It is still not as large as the other four citywide G & T schools, but it certainly dwarfs many other PTAs, as parents are inundated with constant reminders of fundraisers. In 2018, the school required that 40% of its incoming kindergarten class be eligible for free and reduced lunch to curb that trend, a policy being adopted and explored by another school with results too early to tell.

So, how do we develop a screening process that minimizes the number of False Positives and False Negatives while also identifying more True Positives who were not identified because their parents or caregivers did not get their children evaluated for a variety of reasons? One possibility is to have every four-year-old in Pre-K and Head Start screened for the OLSAT and NNAT, where parents can have the opportunity to “opt-out”. I mention this in my testimony last year to both the City Council and the State Senate, where I cite bill S7984 introduced by State Senators Jamal T. Bailey and Toby Ann Stavisky that requires all children to be screened for gifted programs by the 2nd grade.

Currently, the OLSAT and NNAT assessment is an opt-in system that is given on a weekend, where parents have to meet a deadline to register for it. This type of universal screening has been implemented in Broward County in Florida, Montgomery County in Maryland, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro, North Carolina, all with successful results, although all of these public school systems screened their students in second grade, and they do not rely on just two exams, as New York City does. Seattle had also explored the Montgomery County model, which was also cited in the School Diversity Advisory Group, but the school board had recently voted to adopt a Schoolwide Enrichment Model.

Adopting a universal screening alone may not eliminate the False Positives and False Negatives, but it may identify more True Positives that would not be captured in the current system. It also helps start the conversation for many parents and caregivers who may not even realize that their child may be gifted and what raising a gifted child entails because raising gifted children is much more difficult than many people think. Critics of universal screening argue that it will only intensify the test prep arms race while increasing more children eligible for the limited seats that currently exist. Furthermore, it does not address the issue that testing 4-year-olds might be too early to determine if a child is gifted.

The reality is that the current state of gifted education does not meet the needs of gifted children, due to many educators and parents not really understanding the purpose of gifted education. While all special education programs have benchmarks of what their programs are supposed to meet, gifted programs are not held to that same standard. The support for children considered Twice-Exceptional is even more dismal as too many Twice-Exceptional parents are still told: Your child is gifted. S/he should not even need an I.E.P. Even when that I.E.P is acknowledged, which is required by law, getting the services needed for that child is a struggle, and that struggle can continue into the Specialized High Schools.

Gifted programs should be taught by special education teachers. It also needs to be recognized that it is not necessarily a place for high achieving students to meet with other high achieving students because not all gifted children are high achieving, and not all high achieving students are gifted. Many critics of gifted programs have argued that the gifted label is unfair to all students because it makes students not labeled as gifted feel inferior to students who are while also putting unrealistic expectations on children who are labeled as gifted. Too many graduates of gifted programs thought they were a failure because they were not able to achieve a profession that society thought they should have filled. Yet, the problem is that gifted children should never be seen as better, just different than other children.

Furthermore, if the current trend in education is to integrate special education students with general education students, as it is beneficial to both students, then perhaps we need to stop separating children in gifted classes from the rest of the school. After all, many gifted students do not do well in all subjects. Rather than expanding the number of gifted slots at the Kindergarten level, which only accommodates for the False Positives whom may have been prepped into these programs, perhaps a better solution is to allow local school districts to go back and create their own programs, as long as these programs meet the needs of gifted students, following a special education model.

Teachers also need to be better trained in identifying children who might be gifted. The current research shows that Black teachers are best at identifying black children who might be gifted. I often think back to the opening scene in the movie Hidden Figures, where Katherine Johnson’s teacher explains to her parents why her gift for math needs to be nurtured. Unfortunately, implicit biases do prevent teachers from recognizing students who are. For many Black children who are gifted but not identified as such, they are often misclassified in other special education programs, often related to behavior, when the reality may just be that the child is just very bored. This may lead to further problems during that child’s schooling down the road, particularly for black boys.

Consulting with parents of Black, Latinx, and other under-represented communities for their input is also helpful. In the words of one black mother of a child in a gifted program in Seattle, “We are not unicorns.” This is particularly helpful in better-supporting children from under-represented populations, once they are accepted into these programs.

On the other hand, adopting a schoolwide enrichment model (SEM) that the School Diversity Advisory Group has recommended may also be beneficial for many students, too. While I do not believe in phasing out Gifted schools/programs, as the SDAG recommends, I do see value in more schools adopting the SEM approach. The Orton-Gillingham method of reading instruction, for example, is not only beneficial to students with dyslexia; it can be beneficial to all students. This may be difficult now with the belt-tightening the DoE is planning to do with city schools now, but it is a model worth considering. Our ultimate goal is to allow all New York City students to thrive and give them the opportunity they need, and it should not always be an either-or approach.

Flora Ichiou Huang taught science and health education at Stuyvesant High School from 1996 to 2005. During her tenure at Stuyvesant, she developed a free after-school program for students in a nearby middle school in the Two Bridges area of the Lower East Side, many of them from the Alfred Smith Houses — a public housing development, that prepared their students for the Specialized High School Admission. She relied on her high school students who volunteered as tutors. As a parent of a thrice exceptional child who attends one of the Specialized High Schools, as well as a preschooler who might be Twice-Exceptional, she has become a strong advocate for equity in gifted programs, working to dispel myths the public has about giftedness and the mission of gifted education programs.

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Public health professional and former NYC school teacher interested in advancing the progressive, political agenda. A rising tide should lift all ships.