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What NYC must learn about G&T: Testing and sorting 4-year-olds is far inferior to other ways to challenge precocious students of all backgrounds


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There has been a great deal of spirited discussion around gifted and talented programs and screened schools since the recent release of a report from Mayor de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group. I am a member of the executive committee of the group and hope people will look beyond the dramatic headlines about the report and focus on some of the alternative approaches the document discusses to nurturing the talents of all students.

In thinking through how to improve New York City gifted and talented programs, the report lays out three central goals. First, we should make sure all students, including the most advanced, are academically challenged. Second, we should enable New York City to continue to attract and retain students from all backgrounds, including middle-class students who have other options, because everyone benefits when systems have a socioeconomic mix of students. And third, we must reduce high levels of economic and racial segregation, which decades of research suggests harms students.

The group concluded that the current system of testing 4-year-olds needs to change. It is inappropriate to use an exam to sort students at that age, as the National Association of Gifted Children notes. Academic gaps among kids that age are smaller than among high school students, so there is less need to differentiate instruction. The current system misses the talent and potential of many economically disadvantaged students, who do not have access to special supports including expensive prep classes. And the desire to reward hard work that may apply later in life has little relevance to 4-year-olds.

Not surprisingly, such an approach results in staggering levels of segregation. Black and Hispanic students constituted 65% of New York City’s public kindergarten students in 2017-18, but made up just 18% of students offered gifted and talented slots.

What should replace this developmentally inappropriate and segregating mechanism? In the report, we say — seven times — that new programs must challenge all students and highlight promising programs used in a number of other cities. Our wrath was aimed at economic and racial segregation, not academic merit.

The report cites as an alternative, for example, Montgomery County, Md., which starts its gifted programs later — in fourth grade, not kindergarten — and considers socioeconomic hurdles students have overcome. Chicago also does a better job of identifying talent than New York by considering which of four socioeconomic categories a student comes from.

Washington D.C. seeks to challenge students through the School Enrichment Model, in which teachers expose all children to a rich curriculum but tailor instruction to the needs of individual students. This program, designed by University of Connecticut researchers, has been shown in a number careful evaluations to promote student learning.

Another promising example is Stamford, Conn., which reduced rigid academic tracking and saw gains for low-income and minority students, while middle-class students continued to excel.

Other districts have found more inclusive ways to attract and retain middle-class students than by testing and segregating very young children. These districts offer magnet themes such as Montessori or dual-language immersion programs and conduct lotteries for admission. In the report, for example, we point to San Antonio’s success in attracting students to socioeconomically integrated magnet schools.

Another example is Cambridge, Mass., which in the 1980s became an all-magnet district seeking diversity in all its schools. The district saw “reverse white flight” — a 32% increase in new white students and a 13% increase in new minority students over four years. The overall share of school-aged students attending public schools rose from 75% to 88% over a six-year period. The magnet approach could attract even more middle-class students than gifted and talented attracts, since 4-year-olds who do not make the cut and now move to New Jersey might have reason to stay.

New York City’s gifted and talented programs are an outlier nationally. Moving toward the mainstream would not involve entering a brave new world, but, rather, catching up to the rest of the country in finding creative ways to develop talent without segregating students.

Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and sits on the executive committee of New York City’s School Diversity Advisory Group.