BOSTON — Public schools are failing students who perform above grade level, according to a scathing new report that says the lack of attention to “gifted” children puts the state at a disadvantage.
The independent report, funded by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, found that Massachusetts lacks programs for gifted students, doesn’t collect data on top-performing students or train teachers to identify them, and even lacks an official definition of “gifted.”
That puts Massachusetts, which boasts some of the best school districts in the country, trailing a majority of other states with programs focused on gifted students.
“On a wide range of measures, Massachusetts is an outlier in the country in its hands-off approach toward gifted students,” wrote Dana Ansel, who authored the 66-page report. “The current approach ... with few gifted programs and not much attention to gifted education, is not serving students well.”
The report said it’s not clear how many gifted students there are in the Bay State but estimated 6 to 8% of the school-age population, or between 57,000 and 76,000 children.
“Without a common definition and identification process, it is impossible to pinpoint the precise number,” the report stated.
The report noted a few school districts — including Falmouth, Waltham and East Longmeadow — have programs for gifted students, but there are no statewide standards or guidelines for those programs.
Until 2017, the state education department offered an “academically advanced specialist teacher” license, but it was eliminated because of a lack of participation.
In a letter to lawmakers accompanying the report, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said the department “takes seriously its commitment to supporting all students, including students who are gifted and talented.”
But, he acknowledged, the department has “not historically played a particularly significant role in the delivery of gifted and talented programs or in the collection of data from Massachusetts school districts relative to these programs or student enrollment in them.”
The conclusions come as no surprise to advocates for gifted students, who have been calling on state leaders to address the issue for years.
“For those of us who have been in the trenches on this issue, it’s not news to hear that the state isn’t doing enough for its gifted students,” said MaryGrace Stewart, a veteran educator and newly elected president of the Massachusetts Association for Gifted Students. “We’ve been telling the policymakers this for a long time.”
Stewart said she hopes the report spurs proposals to create programs and services, which have languished in legislative committees.
A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Education found only 69 schools in Massachusetts — of 1,872 surveyed — had programs for gifted students. Nationally, about 58% of public schools had a gifted student program, the report noted.
Ansel’s report, which surveyed state officials, educators and parents, noted that top-performing students who feel unchallenged can develop behavioral problems, suffer anxiety and depression, and become disengaged from school. Those who are in racial, ethnic or economic minority groups are disproportionately affected.
“Parents want policymakers to understand that gifted children will not just do fine on their own and that they believe that gifted children suffer harms from the state’s hands-off approach,” Ansel noted. “The promise of a public school system that serves all children, includes meeting the needs of advanced and gifted children.”
Among her recommendations: convene a task force to recommend funding and changes in state law to serve gifted students, create policies that define what it means to be “gifted,” collect data on top-performing students using MCAS test results and other metrics, and retrain teachers and hire educators with expertise in gifted education.
“The commonwealth can and should take actions to make certain that all students, including advanced and gifted students of all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic characteristics, have opportunities to engage in meaningful learning and rise to their potential,” the report said. “Massachusetts will benefit from unleashing the untapped potential of high-achieving students.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.