NYC’s Gifted & Talented Programs Obscure Parents’ Ability to Judge School Performance

In New York City, parents beg, borrow and steal (well, technically, they pay hundreds of dollars for test prep) to get their kids into public school Gifted & Talented (G&T) programs.

But one of the issues that gets overlooked with district G&T’s is that they dilute overall school accountability.

There are two kinds of public school G&T programs. There are stand-alone gifted schools, such as  Anderson, NEST+M, TAG and Lower Lab. On the 2016 state tests, all scored in the top 10 of all NYC schools for English Language Arts (ELA) proficiency. (Alongside several equally or higher scoring charter schools, which have lottery-based admissions and do not require an entrance exam seeking out “gifted” four year olds.)

The majority of district G&T programs, however, are housed within larger schools. That’s where things get interesting. When a school like Manhattan’s PS 166 posts test scores that put it in the Top 15 (excluding charters), they don’t differentiate between G&T and General Ed achievement, but only publish a single, average number for the school as a whole.

Now, it’s true that, in the past, some schools, like the nearby Upper West Side PS 9, reported General Ed students achieving numbers equal to those in G&T – so much so that the latter was phased out for not being needed.

But we have no guarantee of that being the case in all NYC schools. For instance, PS 200 in Brooklyn posts 58% passing Math, and 40% passing ELA. Not only do we not know how high above the city norm – 40% and 39%, respectively – the G&T students are performing, we don’t know how far below the General Ed kids might be scoring (or vice-versa, to be honest) to come up with that average number..

And that is the crux of the problem.

I’ve written before about how bringing G&T programs to under-capacity, under-performing schools is a way to attract middle-class families and tout the institution’s in-name-only diversity – while continuing to reinforce segregation.

I have also written about how Manhattan District 3’s rezoning that distributed children from a low-performing school into three adjacent high-performing schools is yet another shell-game to hide the low-performers.

While families of means will continue to use tutors, thus obscuring even further just how much value-add a given school brings to the table, no one in the Department of Ed is likely to lose sleep over a school’s test scores quietly dropping from a 95% passing rate to 85%. They’re still over twice the city average! Let’s all take another victory lap!

And yet, the same number of kids will continue to be underserved – only now in different schools, where they’re easier to hide.

And that’s the key accountability problem with not separating G&T scores from General Ed. It creates an artificial inflation. It suggests that everyone in a given school is achieving acceptable results, while, in reality, some children could still be performing well below average.

In addition, a school’s middling scores could give G&T parents the false assurance that their children are doing great – they fancy it’s General Ed that’s pulling down the average (especially if they, themselves, opt out of state tests, deeming them unnecessary). In actuality, children in both programs could be performing at an equally mediocre level. In that case, what’s the point of having a G&T at all, if there are no academic advantages – only a way to segregate kids into different classrooms?

Parents considering a public school deserve to know exactly how all children are scoring on state tests, the high and the low – and what role the school is playing in both cases. Something impossible to judge for those who opt out.

In the same way that scores for kids with disabilities and those from low-income families are broken out at the state and federal level for the purpose of accountability, so should those for students in gifted programs be locally, as a way to judge whether these differentiated classes are working the way they’re supposed to – or at all.

The fact that some well-off General Ed schools earn scores higher than some G&T schools would suggest that it’s the student body – and their parents who can afford test prep and other enrichment – not the academic program that makes the difference.

Is G&T actually worth parents spending the money to prep and school districts spending the money to first test, then maintain? (A superintendent in the Bronx seems to be proving they’re unnecessary or, rather, that all kids could benefit from a “gifted” education, not just a select few.)

Otherwise, families could well end up with a bait-and-switch, wherein absolutely nobody wins.

For an alternate solution to educating kids at different stages of academic development that would not cost the district extra and benefit all learners equally, click here.


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