New York City Gets it Wrong Again

New York City Gets it Wrong Again

Education September 24, 2012 / By James H. Borland
New York City Gets it Wrong Again

The New York City Department of Education has provided a textbook case in how not to undertake admissions for gifted programs. The centralized, city-wide admissions procedure guarantees that rampant inequities in the city's gifted programs will persist and perhaps be exacerbated.

The public schools in New York City serve 1.1 million students. That is a staggering number. There are more students in New York City schools than there are people in eight of our states. With a student population of that size to contend with, it is not surprising that the City’s gifted programs are, in the aggregate, similarly large. Last year (2011-2012), for instance, nearly 5,000 kindergarten children qualified for the City’s elementary gifted programs, joining the thousands of students already enrolled in those programs, as well as those enrolled in middle school programs for gifted students and in special high schools such as Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, and Brooklyn Tech (Phillips, 2012).

Not only does New York City currently serve a remarkably large number of students in its gifted programs, but it can also point to a long history (as these things go) of gifted education. Elementary school gifted programs date back to Leta Hollingworth’s “Special Opportunity Classes,” started at P.S. 165 in 1922 (Hollingworth, 1926), and Brooklyn Tech is even older, having been founded in 1918 (VanTassel-Baska, 2010). Few school districts can point to a richer history of gifted education, and none can claim to be serving more gifted students. Why, then, when it comes to gifted education, does the New York City Department of Education persist in getting things so wrong?

Some recent history is in order here. In the 1960s, New York City elementary and middle schools were grouped into 32 separate school districts. Although these districts were done away with in 2003, when schools were allocated to 10 regions, the districts are still widely referred to. Until 2008, each district had its own identification process for its gifted program, but this changed under then Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

In 2007, a city-wide identification process was put into place, whereby, in order to qualify for placement in a gifted program, students, usually preschoolers or kindergarteners, sat for two standardized aptitude tests, the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment (Gootman, 2007). In order to qualify for a gifted program, students needed to score at or above the 95th percentile on both tests (the cut-off was later lowered to the 90th percentile). Two reasons were given for this change in policy. The one that is credible is that the Department of Education wanted to standardize admissions procedures across the City. Whether or not that was a good idea—it was simply asserted as a desideratum—no one doubted that the new process would produce that outcome.

The second reason, the one that beggars belief, is that the change would lessen rampant inequities in gifted-program admissions along racial, ethnic, and socio-economic lines. It had long been the case that certain districts, such as Districts 2 and 3 in Manhattan, which contain many White middle- and upper-middle-class families, had disproportionately large numbers of children qualifying for gifted programs, whereas districts, such as District 7 in the South Bronx and District 16 in Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn, which are largely African-American and Latino, had few children who qualified.

When the changes were announced, Chancellor Klein was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “school districts that usually have a wealth of gifted programs could lose some, while parts of the city with a dearth could gain new ones” (Gootman, 2007). In other words, making admission to the city’s gifted programs contingent on young children achieving high scores on standardized tests was intended to make access to gifted programs more equitable. We have a joke in New York concerning extreme credulity and the purchase of a bridge that is apposite here.

The outcome was predictable: the rich got richer and the poor poorer. Gootman and Gebeloff (2008) reported in the Times that, in the first year under the new policy, although only 17 percent of kindergarteners and first graders in the city’s schools were White, White children constituted 48 percent of students admitted to gifted programs in 2007-2008 (compared with 33 percent of students admitted to the programs under previous entrance policies). Further, Gootman and Gebeloff’s analysis revealed that

. . . 39.2 percent of the students who made the cutoff live in the four wealthiest districts, covering the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, Staten Island and northeast Queens. That is up from 24.9 percent last year, even though those districts make up 14.2 percent of citywide enrollment in the entry-level grades. . . . Students in 14 districts where the poverty rate is more than 75 percent account for more than a third of enrollment but received only 14.6 percent of the offers for spots in gifted programs this year, down from 20.2 percent last year.

Three years later, these pronounced inequities were still a prominent feature of gifted education in New York City. According to a 2011 article in the Times (Otterman, 2011), although about 70 percent of the students in the city’s public schools were African-American and Latino, these two groups combined constituted only 23 percent of the kindergartners who qualified for gifted programs. Clearly, the new policy had exacerbated an educationally and morally untenable situation.

The obvious question is how could people in the Department of Education not have known this would happen? It is hardly a secret that African-American and Latino children, and lower-SES children in general, do less well on tests such as the OLSAT (which was double-weighted compared to the Bracken) than do White and Asian children, especially middle- and upper-middle-class children. A mountain of data on this score can be adduced; Goldstein and Beers’s chapter in the Comprehensive Handbook of Psychological Measurement (2004) is but one example. Either the educational professionals in the Department of Education were ignorant of this well-known fact or they did not care. One is left to speculate as to which is more deficient, their wisdom, or their morality.

Moreover, as Phillips (2012) reported, a thriving test-preparation cottage industry has sprung up, geared toward helping young children qualify for the city’s gifted programs. Phillips writes, “the switch to a test-based admissions system… has given rise to test-preparation services, from booklets costing a few dollars to courses costing hundreds or more, raising concerns that the test’s results were being skewed.” The cost of these services is out of the reach of the city’s poorer families, which are disproportionately African-American and Latino, and this widens the already yawning gap between the city’s haves and have-nots.

Something is obviously wrong, disastrously wrong. But, never fear, the Department of Education has a plan to fix things. Last spring, it announced that the Bracken test would be replaced by the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT). Nonverbal tests eliminate verbal questions and answers in favor, in this case, of matrix problems involving shapes. The thinking is that by reducing the reliance on language in the testing situation and using “culturally neutral” stimuli, racial, ethnic, and socio-economic differences will be attenuated or even eliminated.

However, years of research have shown that so-called culture-fair tests, which the Naglieri purports to be, are anything but. Anastasi and Urbina (1997) write that “a growing body of evidence suggests that nonlanguage tests may be more culturally loaded than language tests. Investigations with a wide body of cultural groups in many countries found larger group differences in performance in other nonverbal tests than in verbal tests” (p. 344). In other words, by making this change (which involves, according to Phillips, 2012, a three-year contract with Pearson for roughly $5.5 million), the department may well have maintained its nearly unblemished record of making things progressively worse.

Interestingly, when I searched for the NNAT on Google, the first three listings consisted of advertisements for practice books and test preparation services. Phillips (2012) reports that “Always on the alert for changes to admissions policies, some tutoring companies, true to the nature of their profession, are prepared for it. One of the companies, Aristotle Circle, already offers a $300 “test preparation and enrichment kit” designed for the Naglieri and similar exams.”

What can be done? Ideally, the people responsible for gifted programs in the Department of Education would both think and act differently. With respect to their thinking, they need to disabuse themselves of some misconceptions that cloud the way they conceive of gifted education.

The first misconception is that standardization is a good thing in and of itself. Standardization should be seen as a means, not an end. It is only beneficial if it brings about positive results, and it is indisputably in this case that the results of standardization of admissions to New York City gifted programs have been anything but positive.

The second misconception is that giftedness is the same thing everywhere. We who work in the field of gifted education do not agree on what giftedness is; everyone, it seems, has his or her own definition. But a common feature of almost all definitions is that gifted students have more of something, or do something better, than other students do. An important question to ask is, what other students?

The reasoning within the Department seems to be that, to need a gifted program, a student in a particular school in New York City has to score higher on two nationally normed tests than 90 percent of students across the country. Notice that I used the phrase “need a gifted program,” not “deserve a gifted program.” Gifted education is a form of special education, conceptually if not legally. Its purpose is to provide an appropriate education for students who otherwise would not receive one. It exists to address educational need. And educational need is dependent on context.

Take, for example, a tenth grader at Stuyvesant High School who scores at the 99th percentile nationally on a test of mathematics achievement. Does that student need a special math program instead of the regular math class at Stuyvesant? Probably not. There is no reason to think the student has an educational need. At that school, a student such as this one is probably quite typical. Mathematics instruction at Stuyvesant is geared to such students, and the mainstream at that school is the right placement.

Consider another student, say, a second-grader at a school where most of the students score well below the national mean in mathematics achievement. This student’s math skills are such that he or she scores at the 85th percentile nationally. Is the regular math class at this student’s school likely to be appropriate? Probably not, because, instruction will be geared to the average level of need of students in this school. And although the student scores at the 85th percentile nationally, in the context of this school, the student is at the 99th percentile. This student does need a special class.

Again, gifted programs can only be justified if they address needs, and needs are specific to local realities, not abstractions such as national norms. This means that a one-size-fits-all approach to identifying students for the City’s gifted programs can be neither equitable nor educationally sound. There have to be reasonable approaches that take into account the actual, specific needs of real students in real schools in different neighborhoods in such a diverse city.

A third misconception is that one can devise an admission policy that relies on tests that does not advantage the wealthiest and disadvantage the poorest. As I stated above, it is established beyond debate in the psychological and educational literature that children from lower-income families and African-American and Latino children do not do as well as other children on standardized tests. There are no culture-fair or culture-free tests, despite decades spent trying to create them. And nonverbal tests are no panacea. Continued reliance on test-driven admissions to the City’s gifted and talented programs can only be justified if one believes that poorer children, African-American children, and Latino children are “less gifted” than other children.

A fourth misconception is admissions practices must rely on objective tests. A test is neither good nor bad solely by virtue of being objective. An objective test is simply one that is the same test wherever and whenever it is given, even if it is administered by someone with no knowledge of what is being tested. What matters in a test, or any form of assessment, is not whether it is objective, but whether it is valid. A test or assessment is valid if it truly measures what it is intended to measure. Not all objective measures are valid, and not all valid measures are objective. For example, a battery of two standardized tests designed to identify which students require gifted programming in New York City that actually identifies which students have come from more privileged circumstances is not valid.

A fifth misconception is that testing preschoolers and kindergarteners will not reflect the benefits that more affluent parents can provide their children. Testing children before the educational system has had its, admittedly limited, equalizing effect simply magnifies the effects of differences in socioeconomic status. It reflects the fact that some children have had the advantage of exclusive preschools; of expensive test-preparation services; of parents with the time, ability, and inclination to read to them regularly; of opportunities to travel and experience what the world has to offer; and of opportunities to be exposed to cultural events rarely experienced by less advantaged children.

What should the Department do? First, and foremost, it should relinquish prescriptive control over the admission policies of the individual school districts and, instead, exercise quality control. Districts should develop their own admission procedures, and the Department of Education should carefully monitor, but not dictate every detail of, the creation, implementation, and outcomes of those procedures.

The Department should also insist that admission procedures use a variety of indicators, not just standardized tests. This is universally recommended best practice in gifted education. All information available about a student should be used when educational placements are being considered, and there should be no City-wide minimum cut-off test score for gifted programs.

Moreover, the Department should provide local educators with the resources needed to design and implement admission procedures. These resources could include consultation with experts in the field, release time to work on the development of admission procedures, and written and other materials.

Finally, the Department should make sure that districts implement identification plans that reflect the realities of a diverse, multicultural city.

Will the Department of Education actually correct its benighted thinking or embrace any of these practices? I sincerely doubt it. This is a department, after all, that adopted a policy that they had to know would exacerbate a serious social and moral problem in the nation’s largest school district, a department that, after five years of spectacularly injurious results, shuns creative and effective thinking and instead tinkers ineffectually with an unfixable admissions process. They seem willing to double down on a recklessly bad bet, leaving many, many deserving children the losers.

Every year, I have a number of teachers from the city’s gifted and talented programs in my classes at Teachers College. I never fail to be impressed by their love for and dedication to their students and their schools. If only these teachers had leaders at the highest level with the honesty and integrity to match their own.


Anastasi, A. & Urbina, S. (1997). Psychological testing. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Goldstein, G. & Beers, S. R. (2004). Comprehensive handbook of psychological assessment (Vol. 1). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Gootman, E. (2007, October 30). Schools raise bar for classes for the gifted. New York Times.

Gootman, E. & Gebeloff, R. (2008, June 19). Gifted programs in the city are less diverse. New York Times.

Hollingworth, L. S. (1926). Gifted Children: Their Nature and Nurture. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Otterman, S. (2011, June 21). More preschoolers test as gifted, even as diversity imbalance persists. New York Times,

Phillips, A. M. (2012, April 13). After number of gifted soars, a fight for kindergarten slots. New York Times.

VanTassel-Baska, J. (2010). The history of urban gifted education. Gifted Child Today, 33(4), 18 - 27.

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