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Dawn X. Henderson Ph.D.

When "Giftedness" Is a Guise for Exclusion

Report indicates racial and class disparities in gifted education placement.

Exclusion in America’s public schools is quite common; ability, class, and race can influence one’s selection into various programs and curricula. So, what are the consequences of excluding students from gifted programs and advanced or college preparatory curricula?

For more than four decades, reports released by the CollegeBoard indicated students who complete advanced courses in high school were more likely to perform well in college and graduate when compared to other students. Students who participate in such programs are also more likely to apply to selective colleges and have a shorter time-to-degree (Klugman, 2012; Dougherty, 2006). Attending more competitive and selective colleges, reduced time-to-degree, and obtaining a college degree translates to a number of social advantages to include higher earned income.

Unfortunately, the public education system begins to exclude Black and Latinx students early from this pipeline.

A report released in North Carolina revealed exclusionary practices in student selection into gifted programs and advanced courses. Reviewing the top scoring students, the report revealed low-income children who scored in the top percentile were less likely to receive placement into gifted programs and advanced courses. In fact, children who did not score high from families that are more affluent had a greater likelihood of placement into gifted programs versus high scoring low-income students. Black and Latinx students had the lowest placement into such programs despite socioeconomic status. While selection into gifted and advanced or college preparatory programs vary, school districts require students to meet a number of standards. For example:

  • Score in the 90th percentile or higher on some aptitude test.
  • Score in the 95th percentile or higher on some achievement test.
  • Pass an interview and have a teacher evaluation.
  • Recommendations by private psychologists.

Clearly, many of these students meet the academic standards, demonstrated by their test scores, but they continue to encounter other structural barriers and subjective criteria that prevent access.

What are structural barriers?

Institutional racism permeates the public education system and parallels structural violence. Racism exists in the structure and processes of the public education system. It is often unconscious and difficult to challenge and change because people believe it is quite natural for one group of people to be dominant or intellectual inferior compared to another group of people. Society will also point to poor parenting and innate differences in intelligence, especially when we have “model minorities” who historically perform well on these tests. Metrics of ability and aptitude are given to affirm these beliefs and institutional structures such as “gifted” programs or college preparatory courses are pathways that sort individuals into this hierarchy.

What do we mean by subjective criteria?

Our perceptions are complex processes shaped by our sociocultural context. What we have learned about people, our reactions, beliefs, and attitudes depend on this context, our socializing systems, from our families, our communities, and the media. Teachers enter the public education system with beliefs and attitudes about learning, students, and their communities. Teachers are more likely to view white and Asian children smarter than other racial groups (Ford, 2013; Gilborn, 2004). School administrators and psychologists may also hold on to these same beliefs.

Hatt (2016) argues we have always racialized intelligence in the United States, shaping academic identities through placement tests and perceptions that undermine young people’s potential and intellectual abilities. The result, exclusion, which disproportionately affects Black and Latinx students.

There are no easy solutions because people who reap advantages and gain from such policies in the public education system will rarely challenge it. These results from North Carolina, however, provide evidence regarding racial and economic disparities in the public education system and serve as critical points to focus advocacy and policy change. Putting pressure on school districts to change the criteria for entrance into gifted and college preparatory programs may lead to some results or, maybe we should consider changing the system completely.


Dougherty, C., Mellor, L., & Jian, S. (2006). The relationship between advanced placement and college graduation. National Center for Educational Accountability. Retrieve from ERIC at (ED519365).

Ford, D. Y. (2013). Multicultural issues: Gifted underrepresentation and prejudice—Learning from Allport and Merton. Gifted Child Today, 36(1), 62-67.

Gilborn, D. (2004). Ability, selection, and institutional racism in schools. In M. Olssen (Ed.), Culture and learning: Access and opportunity in the classroom (pp. 279–297). Greenwich, CN: Information Age Publishing

Hatt, B. (2016). Racializing smartness. Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 19, 1141-1148. doi: 10.1080/13613324.2016.1168537

Klugman, J. (2011). How resource inequalities among high schools reproduce class advantages in college destinations. Retrieve from