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Seattle's Highly Capable Cohort Is Still Overwhelmingly White

Three years after an equity specialist was hired, progress is slow

Published on: January 02, 2018


It’s been three years since the Seattle Public School district hired an equity specialist to address the racial disparities in its advanced learning opportunities (ALO). But today, Seattle’s highly capable cohort (HCC) remains mostly the same: white. 

“Numbers would suggest that within our city … predominantly white children are more gifted than other cultures and races, and we know that is absolutely not true,” says Kari Hanson, the district’s director of student support services. “Clearly we’re not identifying our children of color and we need to get down to why.” 

This awareness of the problem isn’t new. Three years ago, Matthew Okun was hired as the advanced learning team’s equity specialist with the express purpose of finding a solution. He and his team implemented 13 initiatives to address racial inequity in the district’s ALO. Five of the initiatives involve attending committees and consortiums; others include translating eligibility packets, disseminating website information and giving presentations at Title I schools. 

Numbers would suggest that within our city … predominantly white children are more gifted than other cultures and races, and we know that is absolutely not true.

But these efforts haven’t been enough to move the needle. This year, 11.8 percent of highly capable cohort students are Asian, 1.6 are African American, 3.7 are Hispanic and 13 are multiracial. This falls far short of representing the diversity of the district, where 15 percent of students are Asian, 15.7 are African American, 12.3 are Hispanic and 9.4 are multiracial.  

“Over the last three years … progress can be seen.” says Okun. “One is in the actual number of referrals that come from populations of students of color … we also see similar rises proportionally in terms of eligibility. The more students we are getting referred from those demographic groups, the more students are becoming eligible.”

But change has been so incremental, decimal points are needed to show improvement. The African American population of HCC was 1.2 percent in 2015 and 1.6 percent in 2017. Hispanic representation rose from 3.0 to 3.7 percent in the same period.

Change has been so incremental, decimal points are needed to show improvement.

The number of students who were identified as "highly capable" by the district — but don't attend an HCC program — paints a more optimistic picture. The percentage of Asian students who were deemed eligible for HCC fell from 11.7 percent in 2015 to 11.5 percent in 2017. But in the same period, African American students rose from 1.2 percent to 1.4 percent; Hispanic students rose from 3.5 percent to 4.1; and multiracial students rose from 12 percent to 13.7 percent. White students fell from 71.5 percent in 2015 to 69 percent in 2017.

Some of the disparity between the eligibility and enrollment data can be explained by the district's efforts. But not all students who are identified as highly capable end up enrolling in HCC. Like eligibility itself, enrollment is delineated along racial lines — but a different pattern emerges. Of the students eligible for HCC in 2017, 81.6 percent of African American students attended an HCC program, compared to 73.9 percent of Asian students, 72.5 of white students, 65.9 percent of Hispanic students and 67.7 percent of multiracial students.

Improving access to testing and referrals are pieces of the puzzle, but the larger initiatives meant to improve diversity haven’t packed the expected punch, either. Those initiatives include having all second graders at Title I schools take the CogAT test (the test used to screen for advanced learning eligibility), outreach to historically underrepresented communities, and extending invitations to apply based on those results and teacher recommendations. The window to refer students has been expanded, and “special consideration” is now given to some students in the selection process. 

But more testing and referrals hasn’t led to equity because admission to the cohort depends mostly on test scores: Typically, testing in the 98th percentile on the CogAT and in the 95th percentile on subject tests gives a student a “highly capable” designation and the option to enroll in HCC. The problem is that white students from wealthy families almost always outperform other demographic groups on any standardized test. 

Reasons for this are complicated, and span the gamut from systematic racism to cycles of poverty. In the early 20th century, Asian and Black families were prohibited from buying homes in most neighborhoods north of the Ship Canal Bridge. Desegregation of public schools was meant to improve access to educational opportunities. But today, testing requirements perpetuate racial segregation in Seattle's public schools.  

Not satisfied with the status quo, a group of volunteer parents, teachers, students and community advocates formed a group called Racial Equity in HCC. In Sept. 2016, they recommended a variety of changes to the district’s approach to ALO.

One is to use local norms in admission decisions. While admitting students solely to fulfill racial quotas is illegal, state law allows schools to use race and cultural background as factors in admission decisions. The Advanced Learning selection committee does make some special considerations for cultural diversity, but race isn’t an eligibility criteria and low-income status is tricky to uncover in applications. 

“Local norms can be quite complex in their implementation,” says Devin Bruckner, chair of the Racial Equity in HCC group. “But the district can do much more. There are some schools that, based on test scores, very few students would likely qualify for [HCC]. The concept of local norms would tell us to adjust based on that.” 

In several states, two sets of standards exist and the socio-economic norms of the school a student attends dictates which standard to use. In these states, the diversity of advanced learning programs mirrors the overall district. But there are no plans to implement a similar system in Seattle. 

Another recommendation is to change the appeal process. Many students who don’t initially qualify for HCC undergo private testing with a psychologist and use those results as the basis for an appeal. In 2016, 40 percent of students who gained admission to the cohort did so via appeal. 

Students who become eligible as a result of appeal are overwhelming white.

“I talk with my colleagues from all the over the country,” says Stephen Martin, supervisor of the highly capable services and advanced learning programs. “Nobody has an appeal tradition like Seattle … Students who become eligible as a result of appeal are overwhelming white. That exacerbates the disproportionality.” 

While this year, private test results must be at or above the 99th percentile for an appeal to be successful — and subsidized private testing for low-income families is available — there are no plans to stop accepting private test results. 

The biggest and most controversial change recommended by the group is opening up new high school pathways for highly capable students. Currently, students can either test into Ingraham’s Accelerated IB program or are guaranteed admission to Garfield, where a wide variety of AP classes are offered. However, Garfield faces capacity challenges, the growing need to shrink neighborhood boundaries, and a troubled dynamic between neighborhood and HCC students. Most importantly, non-Garfield students aren't provided equitable access to advanced curriculum. 

In December, Seattle School Board directors requested the High School Boundary Task Force to consider complete decentralization by 2021-22, requiring every high school to offer highly capable services. 

“This has the potential to be an exciting change for equity and greater access,” Bruckner says. “Statistics show there are many highly capable students the district has not identified. By offering services in every school, we can better reach all students with need, officially identified or not … Having the program in all local schools also has the potential to increase diversity within the program and AP classes.” 

But not everyone is on board with the proposed change. The HC Services Advisory Committee of HCC parents and teachers is resistant: They want their students to remain together, be assured access to numerous AP offerings and be taught by the most experienced teachers. The school board is expected to vote on the issue Jan. 17.

While the concerns of these parents and teachers are understandable, they are the crux of the equity problem. If the Advanced Learning team can’t figure out how to bring a more diverse set of students into the program, then decentralizing the program and bringing highly capable services to more schools is another way to increase equity.

“This is casting a really negative shadow on the program,” Bruckner emphasizes. “It is to everyone’s advantage to figure out a way to have the program better represent the district. I don’t think the status quo is tenable. Something has to change.”


Editor's note: This article was updated to add additional data around HC eligibility.

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