Young, Gifted and Black

White people love “gifted” children, do you know why? Because an astounding 100% of their kids are gifted! Isn’t that amazing?

~Stuff White People Like

Our son is identified as “gifted” when he is in the second grade. When he brings home the official school notice, we burst out laughing.

Sure, we’ve always considered him to be a bright kid, very serious about LEGOs and inclined to the occasional insight.  (“I am not a nerd; I am a mammal,” he once declared).  But gifted?  He was only seven years old.

According to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), there are a few ways that students can qualify for Gifted and Talent Programs, commonly known as GATE:

  • Intellectual Ability
  • High Achievement Ability
  • Specific Academic Ability
  • Creative Ability
  • Leadership Ability
  • Visual Arts Ability
  • Performing Arts Ability 

A teacher, parent or student (!) can make a referral  for GATE screening.  In our case, we had no idea that our son had been identified or tested.  We later find out that most testing begins in second grade, but students may qualify for Intellectual Ability as soon as second semester of kindergarten.

Once a student is identified as gifted, she “requires an environment which encourages extremely high levels of abstract thinking, motivation, interest, achievement, peer interaction, and a radically accelerated pace of learning,” and she also becomes eligible for specialized programs like School of Advanced Students (SAS), targeted magnet programs, Honors and Advanced Placement courses, etc.

And here’s the kicker: the gifted designation stays on a student’s permanent record for perpetuity.  It doesn’t matter what grades the child receives, he remains in the gifted program until he leaves the District or graduates from high school.

But we don’t know any of this at the time.  We just shrug and don’t think anything more of it.


One of these kids is not going to college.
One of these kids is not going to college.

As a gifted student, our son now qualifies for the School of Advanced Studies (or SAS) at his public middle school, essentially an honors track for basic subjects like math, English and science.  He mixes with “regular” students in  journalism and physical education.

The school requires all students to wear a uniform.  But one of the English teachers mandates that the sixth grade SAS students tuck in their shirts to differentiate themselves because “they are going to college,” she says.

Because he had not been tested in elementary school, one of our son’s best friends, a student of color, applies for the SAS program.  He is denied several times before he is finally admitted in the seventh grade.

When "regular" classrooms are too scary . . .
When “regular” classrooms are too scary . . .

Although the middle school is over 80% black and Latino, most of the SAS kids are not. I request a meeting with the principal to discuss the demographics of the SAS program.  I am armed with a copy of Whiteness as Giftedness for support.

She tells me that she is aware of the racial imbalance. And she discloses—without irony, regret or hesitation—that if the parent of a white student does not feel comfortable with her child in “regular” classes (because the black and Latino students are “too loud”), then the student may request a “social promotion” and be transferred to the gifted program.

I look around to see if there are hidden cameras anywhere.  Surely, the graduate students back at my office at UCLA are pulling a prank on me.  No one would really admit to such a thing out loud would they?  Right to my face?



Four years later, when she is in the sixth grade and also at the same middle school, my daughter says that she is fed up being one of three black kids in the honors classes. She wants to leave the school altogether.

In a preemptive strike, I warn her that she might expect something similar when she gets to high school. Her target school, University HS in West LA, has a similar population. The SAS program there also is diverse I tell her.

“That means not a lot of black kids, huh?” she responds cooly, Intellectual Ability in full effect.

The old middle school principal is fired, so I meet with the new one, an affable African American man that many of the parents adore.  I express my daughter’s concerns and tell him that we are looking at other school options.  He tells me there’s nothing he can do to diversify the SAS program. Kids either arrive at the school “gifted” or not.


To address the disproportionate number of underrepresented (i.e., black and Latino) student populations in gifted programs, beginning 2011, LAUSD requires ALL second graders to be tested, eliminating potential teacher bias and parent intervention.

A 2015 report reveals that the LAUSD gifted testing process has been compromised due to suspicious results.  During the 2012-2013 academic year, entire classrooms in some cases were above the 99th percentile thanks, in large part, to “pre-exposure” of the test used to measure giftedness.  In other words, some internet savvy and well-resourced parents were able to find the GATE instrument online and had their student “practice” before the actual test.

One of my daughter’s best friends, also African American and currently in the ninth grade, remembers taking the GATE test back in the second grade.  “It was pretty easy,” she shrugs. “Just a bunch of shapes and colors.”  I ask what stands out most of her experience.

“Being gifted to me . . . was a time where the so-called gifted kids would be pulled out of class and given special treatment.  They were made to feel as though they were better than everyone else.  The kids who weren’t in the GATE program would think of themselves as not as smart as the other kids.  Children chosen to be in the [GATE] program would boast about being a ‘smart kid’ putting others down as they did so.

Being tested at a very young age to begin with really doesn’t make sense.  People change, along with their abilities and strengths.”

Pearl, 14, has plans to become an entrepreneur and is opening an online store this year.  Harvard University is her top choice.  For now.


2 thoughts on “Young, Gifted and Black

  1. I don’t know how early GATE testing starts in Hawaii DOE, but I know I was a part of it.

    I also know my 3rd grade son isn’t, although he can do math at a 4th grade level at least, and has an excellent vocabulary and prefers non-fiction over anything else. Then again, he’s considered a Special Education kid, and receiving pull out services to improve his writing and fine motor skills. Maybe SPED kids aren’t considered gifted or talented?


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