The future of gifted education is a pretty big deal in Seattle these days.

Over the past academic year, Seattleites have debated the future of what’s known as the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC), a program that keeps students deemed to be more advanced in programs separate from their peers.

There’s long been concern that access to gifted-education programs is inequitable, with critics pointing to a mismatch in enrollment. As Dahlia Bazzaz reported, last fall 14.2% of Seattle Public Schools students were Black, compared to just 1.7% of HCC students.

If you haven’t been following this conversation closely, let’s catch up: District officials proposed phasing out HCC and outsourcing advanced courses entirely to neighborhood schools. That plan stalled. In December, a task force released a long list of recommendations, and the district is forming yet another task force to examine gifted education.

While big-picture changes might be moving slowly, one school-based decision will likely force action soon. The School Board is evaluating the introduction of a new STEM program at Washington Middle School in the Central District — a proposal that became controversial largely because it would entail phasing out that school’s HCC program. Board members don’t vote on the change until Jan. 23, but indicated their support at a meeting Wednesday.

Seattle’s problems are hardly unique, both within Washington state and across the country. Amid the debate, on Thursday The Education Trust — a Washington, D.C.-based group focused on educational equity — released a new report ranking states on how fair access to advanced coursework is. The authors write, “Black and Latino students … are locked out of these opportunities early when they are denied access to gifted and talented programs in elementary school, and later in middle and high school.”

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So how does Washington fare?

For the most part, not great.

The tracker looks at equity in a variety of ways, with rankings on eighth-grade algebra, gifted and talented enrollment and Advanced Placement.

Washington state’s Latino representation in gifted education ranked ninth-worst out of 50 states: EdTrust found that of the number of Latino students it would take to align state demographics with the makeup of advanced courses, only 64% were enrolled in such classes — compared to 114% in Arkansas and 50% in Pennsylvania.

We came in seventh-worst when it comes to Latino student enrollment in schools “that have a fair number of students enrolled in the AP courses,” but significantly better, ranking toward the middle, on a measure of diverse AP offerings. The rankings found that Washington did better by Black students — landing fourth-best in representation in AP courses.

Why were the state’s offerings so different for these populations?

“The gist of the difference is that Black students are more likely to attend school in districts that do a better job with offering AP in an equitable way,” Ivy Smith Morgan, EdTrust’s associate director for analytics, said in an email.

She added: “Black students are heavily concentrated in the large urban districts in the state. Seattle and Tacoma alone educate more than a quarter of the state’s Black students, while those two districts only serve 5% of the state’s Latino students. And we know that large urban districts are more likely to offer AP courses.”

Interesting.

And what about gifted enrollment? Washington came in third-worst (of 42 states analyzed) in representing Latino students fairly in gifted and talented programs. The state had only enrolled 39% of the Latino students EdTrust calculated it would take to reach parity. And that’s despite doing much better on a ranking of whether Latino students attend schools that offer gifted programs. Washington also came in third-to-last on measurements of the Latino share of gifted enrollment, and gifted enrollment in schools that serve the most Latino students.

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Washington ranked midpack for the representation of Black students in gifted programs, with 55% of the enrollment it would take to reach parity, but slightly lower on a measure of Black students enrolled in schools that offer gifted programs.

To figure this out, EdTrust’s researchers looked at test scores in eighth-grade Algebra I and representation in advanced-coursework enrollment relative to demographics. One limitation: they relied on federal civil-rights data collected in the 2015-16 school year. They also scrutinized state policies.

Speaking of which. Last year, state legislators passed a law requiring school districts to automatically enroll students who test proficiently on state exams into “the next most rigorous” class in those texted subject areas, but that requirement doesn’t kick in until the 2021-22  school year. The EdTrust report highlighted this law as one of several “state solutions at work.” Before the law, in response to equity concerns, the state directed districts to prioritize finding low-income students to enroll in gifted courses.

The report shared these broader findings:

  • “Black and Latino students are successful in advanced courses when given the opportunity.”
  • Despite that finding, they’re underrepresented in such classes.
  • That’s because schools that serve predominantly Black and Latino students have fewer students in advanced classes than other schools; and diverse schools “denying Black and Latino students access to those courses.”

As potential solutions, the authors recommended that state leaders:

  • Set clear goals for diversifying advanced coursework
  • Look for the causes that prevent some students from enrolling in the first place
  • Expand advanced coursework in schools serving mostly Black and Latino students

Staff writer Neal Morton contributed reporting.