BE OUR GUEST: BTNY ON GIFTED AND TALENTED PROGRAMS
April 8, 2013
Today, the New York Daily News printed our Be Our Guest column. See below:
BE OUR GUEST: TO DIVERSIFY GIFTED AND TALENTED PROGRAMS, QUALITY TEST PREP SHOULD BE AVAILABLE TO ALL STUDENTS
New York's specialized high schools and gifted and talented elementary school programs have a disproportionately low numbers of black and Hispanic students
BY RHEA WONG / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
PUBLISHED: MONDAY, APRIL 8, 2013, 4:00 AM
UPDATED: MONDAY, APRIL 8, 2013, 4:00 AM
Rhea Wong, executive director of Breakthrough New York
New York City’s specialized high schools and elementary school gifted and talented (G&T) programs share three notable features: They provide unique experiences that give students a leg up for the future; admission is determined solely by test scores, and they have disproportionally low numbers of black and Hispanic students.
The tests for these programs have long been a sticking point. The Department of Education recently announced the latest in a series of changes to the gifted and talented tests, aimed partly at increasing diversity in the programs. Meanwhile, the NAACP and others have called on specialized high schools to consider other admissions criteria. However, tests are likely to remain the major criteria, and past changes to the tests have done little to increase the numbers of black and Hispanic students who qualify for admission.
We need to acknowledge that a major underlying problem leading to a low percentage of minority students in G&T programs and specialized high schools is the poor performing schools too many of these students attend. But, that’s a longer-term problem to solve. In the short term, in order to boost the diversity in G&T programs and specialized high schools, we must determine other reasons why many more white and Asian students are admitted and use those insights to replicate that success among minority students.
The first issue is that many smart black and Hispanic students simply don’t take part in the process. Many parents struggle to navigate — and grasp the importance of — the city’s complex process for selecting and applying to G&T programs and specialized high schools. So, for example, while depressing, I am no longer surprised to hear parents choose poor-performing neighborhood schools like Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School or Sheepshead Bay High School, where graduation rates hover near 50%, compared with the city-wide average of 71%.
Lack of test preparation is another barrier for black and Hispanic students. In wealthier districts, where there are fewer minority students, parents often pay for expensive prep books and classes. There are also examples, particularly in Asian immigrant communities, of low-income students performing well because their parents place much emphasis on test prep.
Consider families from Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, where many parents emigrated from China and brought with them a tradition of emphasis on education and national tests. In their new community, they have established networks through which they share information about testing and admissions, and they enroll their children in weekly prep classes starting at a young age. This helps explain why Asians hold disproportionately high numbers of seats in the gifted and talented programs and specialized high schools.
The benefits of quality test prep resources are clear: Over the past four years, as the use of formal test prep books and tutors has skyrocketed, the number of students achieving scores that qualify them for gifted and talented spots has doubled. The city has expanded its efforts to provide students from low-income families with free tutoring for the specialized high school test, but some argue that the city’s tutoring isn’t much more than remedial help. For free tutoring to make an impact, it must be well publicized to black and Hispanic parents, and it must teach the same techniques that are effective for high-scoring white and Asian students.
We certainly should not begrudge parents who have the wherewithal and the desire to help their children do well on these tests and get into great schools. We should, however, level the playing field by ensuring that all parents are informed about admissions tests and school choices, that all students have access to quality test prep. Maybe then, the enrollment in these programs and schools will be more reflective of the city's population.
Rhea Wong is executive director of Breakthrough New York, which provides low-income, high performing middle school students with tutoring and support to get them into top high schools and on to college.