When New York City set a uniform threshold for admission to public school gifted programs last fall, it was a crucial step in a prolonged effort to equalize access to programs that critics complained were dominated by white middle-class children whose parents knew how to navigate the system.
The move was controversial, with experts warning that standardized tests given to young children were heavily influenced by their upbringing and preschool education, and therefore biased toward the affluent.
Now, an analysis by The New York Times shows that under the new policy, children from the city’s poorest districts were offered a smaller percentage than last year of the entry-grade gifted slots in elementary schools. Children in the city’s wealthiest districts captured a greater share of the slots.
The disparity is so stark that some gifted programs opened by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in an effort to increase opportunities in poor and predominantly minority districts will not fill new classes next year. In three districts, there were too few qualifiers to fill a single class.
The new policy relied on a blunt cutoff score on two standardized tests. According to the analysis, 39.2 percent of the students who made the cutoff live in the four wealthiest districts, covering the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, Staten Island and northeast Queens. That is up from 24.9 percent last year, even though those districts make up 14.2 percent of citywide enrollment in the entry-level grades: kindergarten or first grade, depending on the district.
Students in 14 districts where the poverty rate is more than 75 percent account for more than a third of enrollment but received only 14.6 percent of the offers for spots in gifted programs this year, down from 20.2 percent last year.
The results reflect a head-on collision of two key themes in the Bloomberg administration’s overhaul of the school system. On the one hand, the city has centralized and standardized admissions procedures, including those for pre-kindergarten and high school, to even the playing field and eliminate any advantage held by certain parents.
On the other hand, the administration is intent on ensuring equal access to the system’s most coveted offerings and closing the racial achievement gap, which Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein frequently refers to as a critical front in the civil rights battle.
“Clearly nobody in the Department of Education wanted this to happen, but they should have known that it would,” said James H. Borland, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College who studies gifted education. “The idea that somehow making this totally reliant on tests would be an improvement, it’s mind-boggling.”
Joseph S. Renzulli, director of the University of Connecticut’s National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, who was a consultant to a city task force on the gifted, said he admired the chancellor’s intentions but felt that children should be judged against others in their neighborhoods, not by a citywide cutoff.
“I’ve discussed this with the chancellor and the chancellor’s people, and it just doesn’t seem to register,” he said. “I want the smartest or most creative kids in Red Hook or the South Bronx.”
Education officials defended their revamping of the system, saying they had introduced fairness and transparency.
“Of course we wanted to have programs in every district for all the students,” said Anna Commitante, who oversees the city’s gifted and talented programs. “We implemented the eligibility criteria, it didn’t shake out that way and now we have to take another look at it.”
Officials said that it was “very likely” that the same policy would apply next year but that they would try to broaden the applicant pool. They said judging students against others in their districts was difficult in a city like New York, where children move frequently. . . .