State gifted ed policies crucial to access for ELs, students with disabilities

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Dive Brief:

  • Schools in states with mandates for gifted and talented education have higher rates of participation for English learners and students with disabilities in those programs, according to a paper released Thursday from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.
  • While both groups of students are substantially underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, the Annenberg study found schools with 10 or more English learners are 24 percentage points more likely to offer gifted services if there was a state mandate. Schools with 10 or more students with disabilities were 27 percentage points more likely to have gifted programming with a state requirement.
  • The findings highlight the importance of state policies for the access and equity of gifted programs. The research also serves as a caution for educators and policymakers who assume eliminating gifted or honors programs would resolve disparities in those services, said the study’s co-author Scott Peters, a senior research scientist at NWEA, an education assessment and research nonprofit. 

Dive Insight:

English learners and students with disabilities are identified for gifted programs at much lower rates — about 13% and 17%, respectively — compared to their representation in the overall student population, according to the study.

Using data from the most recent Civil Rights Data Collection, the Stanford Education Data Archive and researchers’ own analysis of state policies for gifted and talented education, they found states with policies for gifted education, district requirements for service plans, and regular audits for compliance had notably higher rates of gifted services and inclusion of English learners and students with disabilities. 

In addition to examining state policies, the study also looked at school characteristics. It found the top 5% of schools with the highest levels of equity for English learners in gifted programs were relatively low-achieving and had higher enrollments of students from low-income families. 

Of the 1,450 schools with the highest levels of inclusion of English learners in gifted programs, a large portion — 407— were in Texas. Peters said it’s unclear why Texas has such a high rate of identification of English learners in gifted programs, but it may be due to the state’s abundance of gifted education policies and funding, as well as a high overall population of English learners.

The top 5% of schools with inclusion of students with disabilities in gifted courses, who are also known as twice-exceptional students, were similar in size and achievement to the overall sample but tended to be smaller than the average school and had smaller gifted enrollments.

State policies or mandates have “a pretty huge effect in context of, on average, what percentage of schools provide access. That’s pretty massive,” Peters said.

Researchers also found that in states where gifted and talented governance fell under the direction of the special education department or was otherwise connected to the state’s special education or exceptional services, there were higher rates of inclusion of students with disabilities in gifted and talented programming.

Of the seven states with links between gifted and special education governance or policy, four had more than 100 schools showing high levels of inclusion of students with disabilities in gifted programs. Those states are Kansas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia.

As debates take place across the country regarding the equitable benefits and drawbacks of offering gifted and honors classes, Peters said this research shows state-related gifted education policies can help open access to underserved students who may not have opportunities to take advanced coursework outside of school. 

“The problem is if you get rid of everything, yes, on paper, enrollments are the same across groups. They’re all zeros,” Peters said. “Getting rid of these services isn’t quite the equity victory some people think this is.”

This article originally appeared in

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