FOX13 Investigates: 'Gifted gap' between ethnicities at Mid-South elementary schools

WATCH: FOX13 investigates 'gifted gap' between ethnicities at Mid-South elementary schools

Most Mid-South school districts have a gap between the demographics of elementary school students and gifted and talented elementary school students, according to local, state and federal data analyzed by FOX13 Investigates.

FOX13 Investigates is calling this the “gifted gap” where there is a distinct difference between the elementary school student body racial make-up compared to the student body racial makeup of gifted students across the district.

In most school districts, African American elementary school students are being adversely affected; their gifted gap in some cases is significant.

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White elementary school students across the Mid-South saw increases between student body percentage to gifted programs in all but two Arkansas school districts (Earle School District and Helena-West Helena School District), three Mississippi school districts (Clarksdale Municipal School District, North Panola Schools and Tunica Co. School District), and one Tennessee school district (Germantown), according to state and federal data.

‘We are working diligently to figure out why’

It's week one for Shelby County Schools, and students in the CLUE program – the gifted program – are being pulled from their normal class for a gifted reading class with their intellectual peers.

But the racial makeup of the gifted program doesn’t look quite like their schools.

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Nearly three quarters (71 percent) of Shelby County elementary school students are African American.

But African Americans make up less than half of the students in the gifted program (47 percent), according to 2018-19 school year data provided by SCS.

Meanwhile, white elementary students make up eight percent of the elementary school student body, but nearly four times that (37 percent) of the gifted program is white.

“What we’ve seen in our district is we have fewer students from our minority backgrounds who are qualifying for gifted and we are working diligently to figure out why,” said Jennifer Chandler.

Chandler, the CLUE advisor for SCS, said the problem is a countrywide one.

“This is not a Shelby County Schools problem. This is not a Tennessee problem. This is a national problem,” said Chandler. “We have too many biases that are built into our system that are preventing gifted students of color from being identified and served in gifted programs across our nation.”

African American elementary students are not the only ones seeing the gifted gap at SCS. Hispanic elementary school students make up 17 percent of the school district’s student body, but less than eight percent are in the CLUE program.

Mixed race elementary students also saw a decrease from three percent in all elementary schools at SCS to less than a percent being classified as gifted.

Asian elementary school students, like white classmates, saw an increase: from one percent elementary school student body make-up to seven percent in the CLUE program.


Mid-South schools by the numbers 

Across the Mid-South, the make-up of the gifted program at elementary schools does not look like the make-up of the entire elementary school.

At Desoto County Schools, black students make up 32 percent of elementary school students, according to an analysis of 2015 federal data.

But inside the district’s elementary school gifted program, only 13 percent of students are black.

Compare that to their white classmates, who make up 55 percent of elementary school classrooms, but saw a 21 percent increase to 76 percent in gifted programs.

Mississippi Department of Education provided FOX13 Investigates 2018-19 school data for all 18 Mississippi school districts in the Mid-South.

MDOE provided numbers for the following elementary, middle and high school students: Asian, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, Native or Pacific Islander, Two or More Races, or White.

However, most of the data is not readable. Most of the document has asterisks under certain race and gender classifications.

An MDOE spokesperson cited federal student privacy laws that preclude the department from releasing specifics for a student’s race and gender if the total number of students under that classification in a particular school is less than 10.

Because of that, FOX13 Investigates cannot give an accurate analysis of elementary school students across our Mississippi school district for the 2018-19 school year.

For this, FOX13 Investigates relied on 2015 federal data for Mississippi schools for this report.

A Desoto County Schools spokesperson declined FOX13 Investigates interview request with superintendent Corey Uselton.

Instead, a statement was emailed:

"DeSoto County Schools offers intellectually gifted services to students in grades 2-6. Initially, all students are mass screened during first grade. Those students who score in the 90th percentile or higher, according to the Mississippi Department of Education guidelines, proceed to the next phase of the assessment process, which includes scoring in the 90th percentile or superior range on three measures of giftedness. Those students who meet this requirement are then administered an individualized IQ measure and must score in the 91st percentile in order to qualify for SPOTLIGHT.
The specific assessment criteria are outlined by the Mississippi Department of Education and are included in DeSoto County Schools Board Policy IDE. Students who show emerging potential for giftedness are given additional opportunities to qualify for the SPOTLIGHT program. In addition to the mass screening process, a student can be referred for the assessment process by a teacher, parent, or even, by himself."

Unlike Mississippi, Tennessee did not provide a full breakdown for all schools for the 2018-19 school year.

A Tennessee Department of Education spokesperson did provide a percentage breakdown for each of the state’s 18 school districts in the Mid-South. But those percentages include middle and high school students, as well as elementary school students.

When asked to comment on 2015-16 federal education data, the spokesperson wrote that the department could not “speak to that data because that is not something that we have ever shared with the federal government.”

The federal data is a collection of civil rights data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education. The most recent survey was conducted in the 2015 year.

Not all Tennessee school districts, per the federal data, offer gifted/talented programs.

According to a Tennessee Department of Education spokesperson, “districts have local decisions that they make regarding programming for general education needs.”

The spokesperson added that, “[d]istricts may have specific local data on their programs, but since the district approach can vary, any potential statewide data would be inaccurate.”

‘Tests are not always culturally relevant’

Across the Mississippi River, Arkansas does provide up-to-date data on its students via its Arkansas Department of Education data center.

At West Memphis School District, 74 percent of elementary school students are African American, according to an analysis of five of the district’s six elementary schools.

ADE’s data center did not have data on Jackson-Wonder Elementary School.

But only 35 percent of gifted and talented elementary students are African American.

That compares to 23 percent of elementary school students who are white and 63 percent of gifted elementary students who are white, according to ADE data for 2018-19.

Annette McClure, the gifted and talented coordinator for West Memphis School District, said that the district has “discovered that the tests are not always culturally relevant.”

“For instance, right here you see a lamp. They see a light. Things like that that will cause their scores to go down considerably,” said McClure.

McClure said that there are currently 110 third-grade students waiting to be placed in the gifted and talented program, as well as 15 additional students across the various other grades.

West Memphis School District said it provides STEM and STEAM learning for its gifted students.

What is being done to close the ‘gifted gap’?

McClure said West Memphis School District is trying two things: first, the district is looking for tests that better relate to the area; second, the district is taking part in a state pilot program that is currently testing boys in December and April.

The testing used to only be in April.

If the data looks promising, McClure said, then Arkansas could start testing all students earlier in the school year.

“We didn’t know if we tested them early instead of waiting until April to test, if it was going to make a big difference,” said McClure.

Chandler said Shelby County Schools is also making two changes to close that gap, both of which are new this year.

SCS has a new universal screen that Chandler said gives kindergarten to second-grade students more exposure to analytical and creative thinking before they’re tested for CLUE in third and fourth grade.

“We want to make sure that we are correctly identifying the right students because we pull them out of that good first instruction, we run the risk of creating a gap if we pull the wrong student, right?” said Chandler. “So, we just want to be very intentional. But we always talk about multiple measures of data.

“And so, we will continue to work with our parents and work with our teachers and make sure, you know, that the right students are provided this enrichment.”

The school district also applied for a federal grant. It hopes to add STEM classes for gifted learners.

“We believe that if we can keep the students engaged and keep that under that IEP, that provides some protection and support for them. That’s going to create a more positive trajectory for them in college and career,” said Chandler.