The Gifted, the Talented, and the Mayoral Race

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Issue 16, Volume 111

By Amanda Cisse 

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With the June 2021 mayoral primaries coming up, it is becoming increasingly important to discuss the effects of mayoral policies on current and future high schoolers. So far, candidates have taken strong stances on the SHSAT, police in schools, and screened admissions from all application systems to reform the New York educational system. As Stuyvesant students, we know these issues well and are affected by them daily. However, many problems with the NYC education system stem from further back than one might think: the Gifted and Talented (G&T) program.

The program starts at the age of four or five, when students take a series of tests, and depending on their performance, they may receive an offer from the collection of 103 specific programs around the city targeted toward high-achieving students. These tests measure students’ verbal, quantitative, and nonverbal skills, all of which are meant to predict future academic success.

Even so, this exam does not do a great job at determining who is gifted or talented. Administering exams that can change someone’s life trajectory at the age of four is not a way to find NYC’s brightest students. Rather, it creates a divide between those who have access to the right resources and information to take the test and those who do not. About 70 percent of students in New York City schools are Black or Hispanic, but less than 10 percent of G&T students are Black. Of the students who reach or surpass the cutoff score, only four percent come from the city’s top eight poorest districts. These disparities are not because these students are any less gifted, but rather because of deeper structural issues. Schools in low-income neighborhoods, many of which are predominantly Black and Hispanic, are less likely to inform students of the exam and provide less support and preparation for it. Additionally, it tests students who have only been in the education system for about a year, which is hardly enough time to develop academically. This lack of support is more prevalent in schools with less funding because they can neither prepare their students as well as those in richer neighborhoods, nor offer the same opportunities.

Candidates like Maya Wiley, Dianne Morales, Ray McGuire, and others have released plans to reform the G&T program. Wiley, for example, plans to eliminate G&T and instead allow individual schools to create their own programs for their “gifted” students. This proposal, however, may be worse than our current program because individual schools will have too much free reign in determining who is gifted. Eliminating the G&T program on a city scale and implementing it on an individual level is not a solution to the problem, but rather only a cavalier misdirection. “Gifted” is subjective; the current G&T program tests students on three set-in-stone areas, but individual schools will have their own unique standards, thus creating disparities among schools on what is considered gifted. Different schools also have different funding and resources to put into creating their own programs. Additionally, eliminating the program also “hides away” the disparities found in G&T schools instead of tackling them fully. Eliminating the G&T program does not change the fact that some schools have more resources than others. The disparities will continue to be present when these same four-year-olds will grow up to take other exams like the SHSAT or the Independent School Entrance Exam and see the same results.

Other candidates like Scott Stringer aim to broaden G&T programs by adding more schools to the program and beginning testing later on. Ray McGuire wants to expand the G&T program in Black and Hispanic communities, create testing opportunities for both first graders and younger students, and make the assessment more holistic. Opening up testing windows for multiple ages is a better solution as it gives people a greater chance of finding out about and preparing for the exam, and it gives people more time to develop as students and people. Adding more schools or expanding the number of schools in specific areas is also a possible solution because it makes the program more accessible for all communities. These solutions are less ideological and more focused on enriching the program. If these reforms are successful, then students in these programs will still grow up to take similar tests, but with fewer disparities. A more diverse and accessible program means that there will be more low-income and minority students attending better high schools and colleges. Successful reformation of this program and the education system in general will make great strides in equality and access for all.

The best solution is to address the core of the problem. All students have different opportunities, rates of poverty, neighborhoods, values, and backgrounds. Achieving community equity and then equality is the way to confront this on a more structural level. This process might look like adding funding to the education system to improve the enrichment of all schools. It might be expanding G&T programs to make them more accessible. It might be focusing on public service facilities and support programs in underserved areas. It’s about changing the way people think and the way we measure “giftedness” or “excellence.” Maybe then, we can find New York’s brightest in a truly meritocratic way.