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New York City to Expand Gifted and Talented Program but Scrap Test

Mayor Eric Adams on Thursday unveiled a plan to expand the city’s gifted and talented classes for elementary students and to permanently eliminate the contentious admissions test given to 4-year-olds in an effort to address concerns that the program has shortchanged low-income and Black and Latino students.

Under Mr. Adams’s plan, the city will add 100 seats to the current 2,400 for kindergarten students in the program and an additional 1,000 seats for third-graders.

The citywide admissions test, which has not been offered since fall 2020, will be replaced by a screening process in which pre-K teachers will nominate students to apply to be entered into a lottery. Applications for the program will open May 31 for the 2022-23 school year.

“It’s time for all our students to have access to the classroom programs that develop their full personhood and their full potential,” the mayor said at a news conference Thursday. “Today’s announcement is about expanding equity.”

By expanding the program and permanently eliminating the admissions tests, the mayor and his schools chancellor, David Banks, are hoping to address what city officials have acknowledged for years: The gifted and talented program has contributed to racially segregated classrooms.

Though 70 percent of the students in the city’s school system are Black and Latino, around 75 percent of the students enrolled in gifted classes are white or Asian American.

“Expanded access to the city’s gifted and talented programs is long overdue,” Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, said in a statement.

But there are concerns that the plan doesn’t go far enough to address the program’s flaws, such as the small number of seats for the city’s more than 70,000 kindergartners and the few entry points into the program.

There were about 1,900 kindergarten children and about 90 third graders accepted into this year’s gifted program, according to Nathaniel Steyer, a spokesman for the Department of Education, in a school system that serves more than a million students.

And some officials questioned the value of the gifted program itself. “Scaling up a program which separates students, often along lines of class and race, is a retrograde approach that does nothing to improve quality education for the overwhelming majority of our students,” said the New York City comptroller, Brad Lander, in a statement.

Defenders of gifted and talented programs also had some concerns.

“Overall, we’re keeping the program, we’re expanding it to where there are no programs, I think that is wonderful news,” said Yiatin Chu, the co-founder of Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education, a group founded by white and Asian parents that supports gifted and talented schools. “There are children that need that environment, children that will be at their very best.”

But Ms. Chu, who has a fifth grader who is not in the gifted and talented program, said the plan had faults. Not nearly enough seats were added, she said. And immigrant families would still like to see a “more standardized and less subjective” way to evaluate children, she said.

Under the existing program, rising kindergarten students who pass the citywide exam enter a lottery to either enroll in the accelerated program at their school or, if their school doesn’t have a program, they try to enroll in a school that does have one.

Mayor Eric Adams and his schools chancellor, David Banks, are committed to gifted education.Credit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times

The programs are seen by many parents as a pipeline into the city’s competitive middle and high schools and an alternative to struggling district schools. The city runs a pilot program for rising third-graders to apply to enter the program, but not in every district.

Critics of the existing program — where admission has normally hinged on a test — say it has kept out too many Black and Latino children and has weakened some regular schools by sometimes moving the strongest students and teachers into gifted and talented programs outside their districts.

Some of those critics say that merely expanding the program is unlikely to increase diversity, “especially when there haven’t been any details and guarantees that those 1,000 seats are going to reach a more diverse group of students than we’ve seen in the past,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank.

Ms. Potter said city officials have spent too much time focusing on how to allot a very small number of seats to a very small percentage of the student population, and would be better off figuring out how “to make it possible to have enrichment and acceleration options that exist in mixed-ability classrooms across the city.”

The citywide test — first instituted under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg more than a decade ago— puts lower-income families, many of them Black and Latino, at a disadvantage, because many live in districts that don’t have gifted and talented programs and cannot travel to them, or cannot afford the thousands of dollars for test preparation for their children.

In the years after the test was introduced, gifted programs in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods all but disappeared in many parts of the city. Yet Manhattan’s District 2 — one of the whitest, wealthiest districts in the city — in 2021 had nearly twice as many gifted programs as there are in all of the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough.

The test became so controversial that an advisory board that helps the city administer it rejected the most recent test last year. As a result, there was no contract for administering the exam for this year.

Before he left office, former Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to eliminate the gifted program and replace it with a program that offered accelerated learning to students later in elementary school. Under his plan, the city would have trained roughly 4,000 educators to accommodate students with different learning abilities in their general education classes.

But Mr. Adams pledged during his campaign for mayor to keep the gifted and talented program, citing the importance of making accelerated learning available.

The plan unveiled Thursday is in line with what the mayor promised on the campaign trail: cancellation of the admissions test and expansion of the program.

Under Mr. Adams’s plan, teachers will evaluate their pre-K students and then decide whether to nominate them for the program. The process was first used during the 2021-22 school year after the advisory board rejected the last test, and it led to a more diverse pool of students receiving invitations to apply, officials said.

In fall 2020, when an admission test was used, just 4 percent of offers went to Black pre-K students, according to data from the Department of Education. That percentage rose to 11 percent when a universal screen was used in fall 2021. Seven percent of offers went to Hispanic students in 2020, compared with 13 percent in 2021.

The percentage of offers going to Asian students decreased 8 percent between 2020 and 2021, and the percentage of offers going to white students decreased 3 percent.

The screening process for the 2022-23 school year will be the same as the 2021-2022 school year, according to a Department of Education spokesman.

Few details were available on how exactly the screening process of pre-K students would work, but education officials said teachers would assess each child based on what the Department of Education has defined as a number of indicators of gifted behavior such as perseverance and curiosity. The screening process has not begun for the 2022-23 school year, but will start soon.

Research shows that later assessments of gifted ability may be more accurate than earlier ones, officials said, which is why 1,000 seats were added for rising third graders.

Under the new program, every district in the city will have at least one gifted and talented program for third grade students, officials said Thursday.

The top 10 percent of second graders in each school will be invited to apply for entry. The invitation will be based on their grades in the four subject areas: English, math, science, and social studies.

The application for both programs opens on May 31. Students are then entered into the lottery.

Placement will be decided based on district, parents’ preference, where siblings attend school and seat availability. Officials hope to eventually create entry points in the fourth and fifth grade.

Several Bronx parents waited to pick up their children from P.S. 11 Highbridge in the shade of Thursday’s afternoon sunshine. Many were glad to hear the program would be returning but expressed concerns about the broader lack of educational resources in the borough.

Maileng Payano, 33, who has two children, said she was in favor of student recommendations by teachers who “spend eight hours a day with them and they know them very well and can know who can actually participate. I think that’s pretty good.”

Pamela Ward, 38, a community liaison and mother of four, waited to pick up her son as a gaggle of children poured out of nearby P.S. 126, gleefully toting Easter-themed goody bags.

“A lot of the kids at this school are gifted and talented,” Ms. Ward said, but “they do not bring the programs to this community. They are not afforded the same opportunities later on in life because of it.”

Her youngest is headed into pre-K, and, she hopes, will have the chance to take part.

“If it’s made available, I’m going to sign my kids up,” she said, adding, “Just give every kid an opportunity.”

Téa Kvetenadze contributed reporting.

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