Is Massachusetts failing its brightest kids? 

Report finds advanced low-income, black, and Latino students may pay steepest price 

FOR MORE THAN two decades, efforts to improve US public schools have set forth an ambitious goal. Leave No Child Behind. The Every Student Succeeds Act. The Student Opportunity Act.

Whether it’s the string of federal laws that have been enacted or state legislation like the funding reform bill passed by the Massachusetts Legislature last year, the names of these sweeping education policy measures telegraph the goal of ensuring that all students are well-served by schools.

The education reform agenda has largely been driven by a sense of urgency that schools have failed to make sure all children are gaining the skills to graduate prepared for success in college or a career. But with all of that focus on the achievement gap and those students struggling to reach a basic level of proficiency, some say the state has been ignoring, if not exactly leaving behind, another group of students: high achievers.

A report commissioned by the state Department of Elementary and Education says Massachusetts is “an outlier in the country in its hands-off approach toward gifted students.” What’s more, the report says, those most harmed by that policy indifference are black, Latino, and low-income students — the same populations that have been the focus of so many of the gap-closing efforts targeting those struggling at the low end of the achievement spectrum.

Doing better at serving the needs of high-achieving black and Latino students, say advocates of gifted education, is also a civil rights issue if we’re truly committed to education equity.

A HUGE ‘EXCELLENCE GAP’

Nearly every other state has a definition of giftedness, and 32 states require districts to identify and/or serve gifted students, according to the state report. In contrast, Massachusetts eliminated its specialized licensing of teachers for advanced learners because of the lack of instructors seeking the certification. Just 69 of the state’s 1,872 schools reported having a talented and gifted program in a 2015-16 survey conducted by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. In the most recent survey of state policies and practices for gifted students, conducted in 2014-15 by two national organizations focused on gifted education, Massachusetts was one of nine states that didn’t even respond to the survey.

Based on data showing 6.6 percent of students nationally were enrolled in gifted education programs, the recently commissioned state report estimates that 6-8 percent of Massachusetts students, or 57,000 to 67,000 students, would be considered gifted.

The state’s lack of attention to gifted education “is something we have to work on and remediate ASAP,” says education commissioner Jeff Riley. (Photo by Llyr Johansen)

Because there is no way to track systematically the progress of academically gifted students in Massachusetts, the state-commissioned report looked at the trajectory of students who scored in the top 12 percent of students on the third grade MCAS math test, the youngest cohort that takes the standardized state exam. Both white and Asian students are overrepresented in this group compared with the overall racial and ethnic distribution of third-graders in the state.

But the most striking finding came when the study looked at where these advanced students landed three years later when they took the sixth grade MCAS. Nearly 72 percent of Asian students and 43 percent of white students who had top scores in third grade remained in the top 10 percent of scores in sixth grade, but just 23 percent of Hispanic students and 21 percent of black students stayed among the top scorers. Meanwhile, just 25 percent of low-income students who were top scorers in third grade remained at the top by sixth grade.

“We are not meeting the needs of academically advanced students, particularly black, Hispanic, and/or low-income students,” said Dana Ansel, an independent education consultant who authored the report. “This focus on proficiency and the achievement gap has narrowed our view of what’s happening in urban schools.”

The analysis also compared the schools attended by high-scoring students by examining their overall growth scores. These are composite profiles of schools based on how each student is progressing compared with other students who started out with similar scores. Academically advanced black and Hispanic third grade students were about three times more likely than their white and Asian peers to be attending a low-growth school by sixth grade, with about 30 percent of Hispanic and black students in such schools.

While the lack of attention to gifted education programs may be holding back students across the state, Ansel said the impact appears to be greatest on students whose families can’t compensate for shortcomings in their formal schooling with outside programs that let them pursue accelerated learning opportunities. “A lot of parents with resources find ways to supplement what’s needed,” said Ansel.

Those inequities play out in a measure of top-achievers that has been dubbed the “excellence gap” by Jonathan Plucker, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. The excellence gap considers the disparities in high achievement by racial and ethnic groups as well socioeconomic status.

Massachusetts has among the highest excellence gaps of any state. For example, on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the “nation’s report card,” only 1 percent of Massachusetts black students and 3 percent of Hispanic students scored advanced on the fourth grade math test, compared with 15 percent of white students and 38 percent of Asian students. There was also a huge gap by family income, with 4 percent of those eligible for the school lunch program scoring advanced compared with 20 percent of those not eligible.

“If you’re really into social justice and civil rights, what could be more important than closing excellence gaps?” said Plucker.

SERVING ALL KIDS WELL

State education commissioner Jeff Riley said the fall-off in achievement among high-scoring black and Hispanic third-graders in the report his department had done was alarming. “I thought it was the most consequential finding in the report,” he said. “That is something I think we have to work on and remediate ASAP.”

Riley has first-hand experience with efforts to boost advanced learning opportunities for minority students. In 2015, while serving as the state-appointed receiver for the long-struggling Lawrence school district, he launched a school within Lawrence High School — Abbott Lawrence Academy — for advanced students. Some of the brightest students in the district, which is 94 percent Hispanic, were being “cherry picked” by nearby Phillips Andover and other private schools, Riley said, while many others remained in the city’s high school but were not sufficiently challenged.

“It’s been a dream come true for my parents,” says Lisalie Paredes, who is attending Babson College in the fall on a full scholarship.

The roughly 400 students enrolled in Abbott Lawrence Academy attend separate, accelerated classes in core academic subjects, but take electives and participate in extracurricular activities together with Lawrence High’s other 2,900 students.

“It’s made a huge difference. I don’t think I would have chosen the college I’m going to now without Abbott,” said Liz Almonte, a senior in the accelerated program who was admitted early decision to Mount Holyoke College. “They push you to be the best version of yourself both academically and outside of school,” said Almonte, the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic who was elected senior class president at Abbott and will be the first person in her family to attend college.

Her classmate, Lisalie Paredes, who has been admitted to Babson College on a full four-year scholarship, said Abbott Academy “100 percent challenged me.”

Paredes’s parents are also immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Her father works as a taxi driver, while her mother is a family daycare provider. Like Almonte, she will be the first one in her family to attend college. “It’s been a dream come true for my parents,” she said.

Liz Almonte says Abbott Lawrence Academy prepared her to gain admission to Mount Holyoke College.

Brockton is one of a handful of Massachusetts districts with a comprehensive program for gifted students. The district program accepts roughly 75 fourth-graders each year, based on scores on several national achievement tests as well as teacher and principal recommendations. Students admitted to the program all attend the same district elementary school through sixth grade and then move to the same middle school before starting at Brockton High School, which offers AP classes and other advanced coursework

The accelerated learning initiative is a big reason why Magalie Pinney and her husband have stayed in Brockton, where all three of their children have been in the program. “I’m vigilant for my own kids, but other families should have those opportunities as well,” said Pinney, the daughter of Haitian immigrants who is on the board of the Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education, a parent-led advocacy organization.

Critics of school programs for high-achieving students say they contribute to segregation and exacerbate inequality, while supporters say they simply allow students to reach their full potential by not being held back from advancing at a faster rate than their peers.

Ethan Cancell, who oversees Brockton’s gifted program as director of research and accountability for the district, said it would be ideal if standard classroom teachers could set up lessons in ways tailored to students at all levels. But “differentiated instruction,” as it’s known in the education field, is often hard to do, especially with large class sizes. “Making individualization and personalization a reality is extremely challenging,” Cancell said.

The gifted program in Brockton “begins to recognize that there are certain children who are exceeding the state’s expectations. They should have the opportunity in a school system to get those enrichment academic opportunities or accelerated academic instruction. There’s a real equity concern,” Cancell said of ensuring access to such programs in a district like Brockton, where 77 percent of students are black or Hispanic and 57 percent come from low-income households.

MaryGrace Stewart, the president of the Massachusetts gifted education organization, said people often have the wrong idea about programming geared toward high-achieving students. “People think that gifted education in public schools is elitist,” she said. “But it’s the opposite. If you don’t have gifted education in the public schools the kids whose parents can’t afford [outside enrichment programs] are hurt most. Only those who can afford it get it, and that’s really, really not fair.”

Boston — the state’s largest school district — where more than 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic and nearly 60 percent of students come from low-income households, has long offered separate “advanced work” classrooms for students in fourth through sixth grade. The district also has three 7-12 grade “exam” schools that offer seats based on test scores and grades, including nationally renowned Boston Latin School.

Brenda Cassellius, who took the reins last year as the new superintendent in Boston, said she generally favors “heterogeneous grouping” that has kids of all abilities in the same classroom. “My belief is that you meet the needs of the students within the classroom and that there’s not a lot of segregating of students by ability and ability-grouping and tracking,” she said.

A recent analysis of the system’s “advanced work” classrooms for elementary school fourth to sixth grade students, however, suggests that such ability-grouped programs make a huge difference, especially for black and Latino students.

Sarah Cohodes, an assistant professor of education policy and economics at Columbia University, tracked students who were third-graders in Boston schools from 2001 to 2005 all the way through high school and into the first two years following their scheduled graduation. During those years, 7 to 10 percent of Boston Public Schools students were in advanced work classrooms. Cohodes compared the long-term outcomes of students who just cleared the test-score threshold for admission to an advanced work class with those students who just missed the cutoff for admission to the advanced program.

Students attending advanced in elementary grades work were 28 percent more likely to enroll in college than their academic near-peers who just missed the advanced work cutoff. The results were even stronger for black and Latino students, who had a 65 percent higher rate of college enrollment if they took part in the advanced work program in elementary school.

The results indicate “that underrepresented students in particular may benefit from interventions like [advanced work class],” writes Cohodes, and that such programs “can change the life courses of these students.”

Riley, the state education commissioner, said he’s committed to addressing the lack of attention to gifted education in Massachusetts. The first step in response to the state-commissioned report has been to reconstitute a dormant state advisory council on gifted education to consider policy recommendations to pursue. Among the ideas raised by the state report are including gifted instruction into educator training programs, developing a statewide definition of gifted students and tracking data on them, and tracking and reporting on excellence gaps in the state.

Even those who believe strongly in having school programs geared toward advanced or gifted students acknowledge downsides that have long been associated with grouping students by ability. “Putting people at ridiculously young ages in tracks they can never escape from — that’s segregation, that’s just a distasteful relic,” said Plucker, the Johns Hopkins researcher.

In Brockton, Cancell, the administrator who oversees the city’s “talented and gifted” program, said the district is preparing to propose changes to the program to allow “multiple entry points” at different grades and to develop ways to accommodate students who may be advanced in one subject and not another. “We want the barriers to be really porous, really flexible.” said Cancell, who also worries about any approaches to gifted education that “put a kid in a box” and say “you’re stuck there.”

Plucker said he’s realistic about what it would take to close the “excellence gap” among high-achieving students of different backgrounds. He said poverty and lots of other out-of-school variables are important factors driving the excellence gap. “I actually don’t believe that schools can fix that 100 percent,” he said of the disparities in high-achieving students. “Could we cut the huge excellence gap at least in half? I think that’s feasible.”

“It’s an equity issue that has never really been talked about, and it’s something we in the department are interested in talking about with districts,” said Riley. “We want to do a deep dive on the information and see what’s best.”