Sentner: Gifted and talented or wealthy and privileged?

Friday, Nov. 17, 2017 10:10 PM
Irie Sentner

In sixth grade, I sat down with the rest of my class to take a standardized test. I was confused: it asked me about shapes and patterns instead of the questions on math and literature that I was used to answering.

It was the Cognitive Abilities Test (CoGAT), a national exam that quantifies K-12 students’ reasoning and problem-solving skills. Three weeks later, I was pulled out of class and into the counseling office. They told me that I had scored extremely high, that I thought differently than other people and that they were going to label me as gifted and talented.

It’s been four years and the 9-R school district still considers me as GT. In that time, I’ve met the other gifted kids in my grade. We share many classes and have become friends. It’s inadvertent, but our academic goals and abilities often place us together.

It has become apparent to me that this pool of students holds little diversity – even less than our already monochrome and unvarying student body. Growing up, my academic experiences have mainly taken place around white, upper-class peers. The same holds true nationwide: students of color, religious minorities and low income brackets are wildly underrepresented in almost every state’s GT program.

This is incredibly dangerous. Disparities in ethnic demographics among GT students are extreme. According to the American Education Research Association, the odds of being placed into a GT program are 66 percent lower for black students, and 47 percent lower for Hispanic students, than for white students.

Students of low-income backgrounds are also much less likely to be labeled as gifted – of the students surveyed by the National Association for Gifted Children, less than 1 percent of those eligible for the free or reduced lunch program qualified as GT, as opposed to 6 percent of non-eligible students. In other words, students whose parents’ income falls near or below the poverty line are much less likely to be labeled as gifted than students of higher socioeconomic privilege.

This is no coincidence – the American gifted education system is inherently racist and classist. In the United States, caucasians and Asian Americans are statistically most likely to be high-income. All parents want their children to be special, and those who can afford it schedule tutoring and practice CoGAT tests for their kids.

Furthermore, young students can be labeled as GT by parent or teacher advocation. Knowledge of GT is highest in wealthy white communities, and lowest in urban minority populations. The issue widens for English language learning families, who linguistically do not have the ability to effectively advocate for their children.

Not only is this detrimental for gifted students who have slipped through the cracks and cannot utilize enriched programs, but also for both GT-identified and non-GT student populations. The terminology alone is confidence building, and carries a tone of superiority.

Many of my peers were labeled in early elementary school – they’ve been told that they are gifted for their entire cognitive lives. We were grouped together in advanced classes, held group meetings at lunch in middle school and met with counselors to discuss advanced learning plans.

As a GT student, it was always strange for all of the people around me to be wealthy and white. I could only imagine what it would be like for minority students to be grouped in with us, or conversely, for a non-GT student to see the gifted kids only as rich and white. It carries severe psychological ramifications – from as early as first grade a flawed system teaches developing children that a racial and economic divide correlates with academic achievement and success.

These skewed viewpoints may continue to affect views on excellence after graduation, contributing to racist societal stereotypes in professional, “real world” settings.

I understand that gifted and talented programs are important, and that giftedness should be recognized, embraced and nurtured. I also recognize that there is nothing wrong with being well off or white. But when it comes to demographic gaps, something needs to change.

Every child in this country, no matter race, class, or creed, deserves the right to be recognized for excellence.

Durango High School sophomore Irie Sentner is Specials Editor at El Diablo, Durango High School’s student newspaper. His parents are Mariposa Velez and Lee Sentner of Durango.