When I was in kindergarten, I took a special admissions test at my school. One question from that test remains vivid in my memory: the administrator presented me with a page featuring four boats and asked me to identify the widest one. Unfamiliar with the term “wide,” I chose a boat randomly. Later, I approached my mother and asked what wide meant. She demonstrated by stretching her arms wide, explaining it meant “big.” Reflecting on my response, I realized I had mistakenly picked the smallest boat on the page. This test was for admission to a gifted and talented (G&T) program in New York City Public Schools. I did not end up getting into the G&T program.
Each year, thousands of New York City students vie for seats in the city’s gifted and talented programs, just like I did. There are about 70,000 kindergarteners in New York City in total, and just 2,500 kindergarten G&T spots. The students who end up getting access to these spots do not mirror the racial diversity of the city: though 70 percent of NYC public school students are Black and Latino, 75 percent of G&T students are White and Asian. This demographic disconnect is a cause for concern—it means that fewer Black and Latino students are getting access to these programs, and it means that students who do make it into G&T are missing out on having classrooms that reflect New York City’s greater diversity.
The process through which students are selected for G&T programs shapes the diversity in the classroom—or lack thereof. For years, from 2008 to 2021, admission to the city’s gifted and talented programs was based on taking a single standardized test—the process that I experienced. But as New York City has seen a shift in political leadership over the past few years, the vision for what to do with the school system’s G&T programs has ranged from planning to phase them out entirely at the end of the previous administration, to expanding them in the current administration. Though these approaches are on opposite ends of the spectrum, they both were proposed in the name of increasing equity.
Despite the purported intent, the decision to “reform” G&T programs by adding slots has missed the mark on equity, and only introduced chaos. By not solving for equity, the G&T system essentially continues to function as originally intended: as a way to keep White middle-class families in the public school system. This commentary argues that, if New York City wants to fully expand access to an equitable public school system, G&T programs should be phased out entirely. Instead, a new approach should be adopted, one that ensures every school receives ample resources to adequately support its students and reflects the diverse composition of its district.
Changes to G&T in Recent Years
During his tenure, former Mayor Bill deBlasio made many moves to reform the public school system. In 2019, he tasked the School Diversity Advisory Group with coming up with ways to desegregate the NYC public school system. One recommendation the advisory group came up with was the elimination of G&T programs, which was initially met with a lot of backlash, leaving the administration unsure of next steps. In the midst of the pandemic, questions were raised about equity as well as health and safety regarding in-person testing, and so in early 2021 the Panel for Education Policy rejected the testing contract, citing a need for an alternative approach to G&T that was both safe and equitable. In light of this, G&T admissions for that year were instead based on teacher nominations.
In October 2021, the New York City Department of Education introduced a comprehensive plan to replace G&T as a whole: Brilliant NYC. Brilliant NYC is described as an “inclusive approach to elementary education that recognizes the strengths that each child holds and provides all children with accelerated learning that cultivates their gifts and talents.” Brilliant NYC incorporated elements of project-based learning and programs that expand enrichment to all students in the school. Although this plan was created with input from various experts, consultants, and other stakeholders, DeBlasio announced the plan shortly before he left office, and the succeeding administration scrapped the plan before it could be implemented.
While Mayor Eric Adams didn’t implement the new approach to expanded enrichment as outlined in Brilliant NYC, he also didn’t reinstate the G&T test. Adams instead modestly expanded the current gifted and talented classes for both kindergarteners and third-grade students. For the 2022–23 school year, the city added 100 seats to kindergarten G&T programs, increasing the number of seats from 2,400 to 2,500. The city also added 1,000 seats for third-grade students to create a baseline of one program in every district to open up the pathway to G&T programs at a later stage as well. For kindergarten admissions, instead of students being tested, they are nominated by teachers and entered into a lottery system. For third-grade admissions, the top 10 percent of second graders in schools are invited to apply based on Math, Science, Reading, and Social Studies scores, with Adams expanding third-grade G&T programs so that every district will have at least one gifted and talented program for third graders.
For the 2023–24 school year (and presumably onward), the number of seats remained the same as the previous year, but admissions methods changed. For kindergarten admission, students were divided into two groups. The first group comprised students currently enrolled in New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) preschools, pre-K centers, NYCEECs, and charter schools. The second group included children attending private/parochial schools and those who were not enrolled in any school yet. Currently enrolled pre-K students were evaluated by their teachers holistically to determine if they present certain behaviors suitable for G&T learning. Currently enrolled private/parochial students, along with children who are not in school yet, were interviewed by NYCDOE Division of Childhood Education experts and nominated based on these interviews. For K–3 students, evaluations were based on their school grades, requiring a minimum score of 3 or 4 in Math, Reading, and Writing. Additionally, they must not have received a score of 1 in any of these subjects. Once K–3 students were invited to apply, they were admitted based on a range of factors, including family application choices, programs’ seat availability, and admissions priorities.
How G&T Exacerbates Inequality
While eliminating the G&T admissions test is a step in the right direction, the new system falls short in fully integrating schools and ensuring that all New York City students have access to sufficient resources. Eliminating the G&T test did increase the number of Black and Hispanic students admitted, but it was not a substantial increase: from 2020 (when a screening test was used) to 2021, (when the screening test was eliminated), G&T offers to Black students rose from 4 percent to 11 percent, and from 7 percent to 13 percent for Hispanic students. For the 2022–23 school year, Black and Hispanic students made up 24 percent of the G&T class, which, although an increase from the last year, is still an underrepresentation. It is also worth noting that, for the 2023–24 school year, officials did not release admissions data specifically for G&T. Moreover, the new approach presents its own set of challenges that need to be addressed.
First, using teacher nominations as admissions criteria for pre-K students raises concerns about objectivity, as teachers are not free from racial biases. According to data from 2020, the New York City public school teacher workforce skews White: 55 percent of teachers are White, 18 percent are Black, and 14 percent are Hispanic, while 24 percent of NYC public school students are Black, and 41 percent are Latino. This significant disparity is crucial, because teachers’ racial biases can influence their expectations for students, the quality of their teaching, and the decisions they make in managing their classrooms. Studies have also indicated that Black students are more likely to be identified as gifted when their teachers are Black, while they are less likely to receive such recognition if their teachers are White. Relying solely on teacher nominations for kindergarten G&T admissions leaves students of color vulnerable to potential racial biases from teachers, and this issue may persist until the teacher workforce becomes more diverse.
Second, the grading criteria for K–3 students may be unreliable. Grades, especially at such a young age, may not always provide an accurate representation of a student’s intellect. Moreover, the rule that a student must never have received a score of 1 in Math, Reading, or Writing could have discriminatory effects on those with learning disabilities and English learners (ELs), who are already underrepresented in G&T programs. These students may face additional challenges in certain subjects, and basing admissions solely on past grades may not consider their unique circumstances and potential for growth.
Third, the fundamental issue of whether segregating “gifted” students from their “nongifted” peers produces better outcomes overall remains unresolved. The current G&T system perpetuates a scarcity model, where only a handful of schools in specific neighborhoods offer this enrichment program, leaving other schools without these resources. With the recent expansion of G&T programs, every school district will now have at least one school with a gifted program admitting students from kindergarten and another from third grade. However, this approach leaves many other schools within each district without any gifted programs at all. Some parents may lean toward schools with gifted programs, leading to a further decline in student enrollment at other schools. As Chalkbeat reports, “competition from new gifted programs could put already-struggling schools in an even more difficult position, with fewer students and therefore smaller budgets.” Furthermore, the impact of parents gravitating toward G&T schools may extend beyond a shift in student enrollment. It can also lead to a loss of valuable parental resources for the local neighborhood schools. While school funding originates from various sources, Parent–Teacher Association (PTA) funding plays a significant role in supporting additional activities and benefits within schools. It is worth noting that G&T students tend to come from more-affluent backgrounds compared to their non-G&T peers. Consequently, many of their parents are better positioned to provide supplementary resources, benefits, and programs to their children’s schools. This further exacerbates the existing inequity within the education system, as certain schools enjoy additional advantages while others struggle to meet their students’ needs. Addressing this issue is essential to ensure a fair and balanced distribution of resources and opportunities across all schools in the city.
The Need to Disrupt New York City’s Education Pipeline
The elementary school a child attends shouldn’t have such significant influence over the trajectory of their entire life. But for students in New York City public schools, there is a real pipeline effect that extends from kindergarten to college. Students who do not enter the pipeline by attending G&T programs at an early age might not have the opportunity to try again later on; shut out of select elementary and middle schools, these students are often then denied access to select high schools.
This pipeline effect is keenly felt by many parents and students in New York City, and is well-documented. As the NYU Metro Center reports, more than half of the students admitted to New York City’s selective high schools come from only 4 percent of the city’s middle schools. Furthermore, an analysis by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs found that 60 percent of specialized high school students came from just forty-five out of New York City’s over five hundred middle schools. These forty-five schools include NEST+M, Anderson School, TAG Young Scholars, and the STEM Academy at Queens College, all of which are citywide G&T schools. The students who attend these G&T schools go on to attend specialized high schools, which produce Nobel prize winners, award winning researchers, and elite college graduates.
This pipeline effect eventually results in the segregation seen at the university level—but it starts way before that. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring race-based affirmative action in university admissions as unconstitutional underscores the importance of addressing educational inequities through other means, such as ensuring equal access to quality education for all, starting as early as kindergarten.
A Policy Solution
Rather than continuing an inequitable program that concentrates more resources on select schools, the current mayoral administration should phase out G&T programs and instead focus on fostering enrichment opportunities across all schools. By doing so, the education system can honor the diverse and unique gifts and interests possessed by every student, fostering a more equitable and inclusive learning environment for all. This shift away from a selective system will not only benefit individual students but also contribute to the overall improvement of education in New York City.
Replacing the current Gifted and Talented (G&T) programs with a model like the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) offers a promising solution to address the existing scarcity model. Rather than restricting advanced curriculum to specific schools and segregating “gifted” students from their peers, SEM advocates for a more inclusive approach where all schools have access to adequate resources. The core goal of SEM is to provide enrichment opportunities that engage all students, allowing them to explore real-life problems and delve into investigative learning based on their shared interests. The previous mayoral administration’s plan, Brilliant NYC, already integrated elements of SEM.
I’ve felt the pressure of feeling like I had to secure a spot in a gifted and talented school. It created an overwhelming sense that failure to do so would jeopardize my chances of attending a “good” high school or college. This pressure still extends to New York City public school students as young as four years old. All students—especially young students, who have so much of their education ahead of them—deserve equal opportunities and enriched learning resources so that they can fulfill their true potential.