Understanding Underrepresentation in Gifted Education

need to know

The underrepresentation of students from minority and low-income backgrounds in gifted education programs continues to be one of the most critical, yet seldom talked about, issues confronting education.

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For African-American, Hispanic and low-income students the issue is about access and outcomes. Too few of these student groups have access to gifted education programs or advanced courses at the elementary or secondary level (i.e. AP, IB).

In fact, Caucasian and Asian students make-up nearly 75 percent of students enrolled in gifted and talented programs, despite the fact that African-American and Hispanic students are 44 percent of the student population .

It should come as no surprise that few, if any, students from minority or low-income backgrounds score at the top levels of state assessments or the National Assessment for Educational Progress (known as the Nation’s Report Card) .

Furthermore, without access to a challenging education, high-ability students from low-income backgrounds are twice as likely to drop out of school and less likely to attend college .

Addressing this issue requires reforms to our educational system which include an emphasis on high ability learners; greater professional development and preparation; and increased research and dissemination.

Equitable Access Begins with You!

Ensuring equitable access to gifted education is our ethical and legal responsibility to our students. Children who are culturally and linguistically different, economically disadvantaged, and who are twice exceptional (those with gifts as well as disabilities) continue to be underrepresented in gifted education programs.

Addressing this persistent challenge starts with taking five straight-forward steps that require caring, commitment and courage as outlined in the Civil Rights Review: Gifted Education Program Checklist for Underrepresentation, by CEC Members Mary Ruth Coleman and Donna Ford.

  1.  Determine your base-line data. Look at who is nominated for, who is identified for, who participates in, and who drops out of gifted education services to determine whether students from certain demographic backgrounds are underrepresented. To make this determination, first identify the classroom, school, and district’s student demographics by race, language status, gender, income, and disability status. Then, look at your gifted education program to determine whether a comparable percentage of students from these demographics (i.e. race, language status, gender, income disability status) or if the difference is greater than 20%, this discrepancy indicates a significant problem. Expect between 1-3% of your students with disabilities to also have gifts and talents.
  2. Establish your equity goals. Based on your data, determine your major challenges and establish your equity goals. It may be uncomfortable to shine a spotlight on your “flaws” but this is the only way to confront the problem and to build coalitions of support. These coalitions must include all major stakeholders reflecting the demographics of the district and inviting key educators, family, and community members with a stake in excellence to participate in the process.
  3. Review rules and regulations. Use your data as a starting point for identify the major areas of underrepresentation facing your school(s) and district. Form a working group to review your program rules and regulations to find barriers that might lead to the patterns of underrepresentation shown by your data. Do identification patterns show differences by classroom, school, race, language status, gender, or disability status? Are problems wide spread? What do you see as the “root cause” of the underrepresentation? Is the difficulty with the way your rules and regulations are written or with how they are implemented? Revise your rules and regulations if needed.
  4. Review practices. How can screening and identification practices be improved? Review notification to parents for language consideration and communications methods. Examine screening and student search practices and how families are included in this process. Consider planned experiences for students to see how they respond to high-end learning opportunities. Look at committee review process to see if multiple sources, time periods, and types of data are considered when matching each student to appropriate services. Review programs to ensure that they are culturally responsive, provide additional support for students if needed, and engage families in meaningful ways.
  5. Build capacity for improvement. The infrastructure to sustain appropriate practice must be put into place. This includes appropriate policies, professional development to build knowledge and skills, and an accountability system for improved outcomes. Building the capacity for improvement is critical to sustaining the changes made.

Remember, fair rules and regulations are a point of departure, not a destination. Building capacity to recognize and respond to students strengths is critical and documenting improvement is key to improving opportunities for high-ability students. 

We invite you to join with us on this is critical issue and help to move the field forward by addressing the needs of gifted children who remain under-identified and under-served. We can’t give up until we’ve made the difference we want to see – achieved equity!


1Ford, D. Y. (2013). Recruiting and Retaining Culturally Different Students in Gifted Education. Waco: Prufrock Press

Mary Ruth Coleman, Ph.D., is Director, Projects U-STARS and ACCESS, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Donna Ford, Ph.D., is Harvie Branscomb Distinguished Professor (2013 Vanderbilt University).