NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Poor Results for High Achievers

March 2, 2012

For nearly a decade, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has focused policymakers and researchers on the achievement of low-performing students.  This has led, however, to the neglect of high-achieving students, who are increasingly left with few resources tailored to their needs and, as a result, fail to achieve their potential, say Sa Bui, Scott Imberman and Steven Craig of the University of Houston.

For many, the country's gifted and talented (G&T) programs fulfill this need; after all, students in such programs perform much better on standardized tests than their peers.  However, a recent study shows that this superior performance cannot be attributed to the school, and that these students outperform simply based on internal characteristics.

A study comparing students who barely qualified for G&T programs with those who barely missed the cutoff (effectively eliminating differences in achievement), found the following results:

  • In no area of achievement did the G&T students significantly outperform their peers.
  • Positive effects as small as 0.04 standard deviations (sd) in math, 0.07 sd in reading, 0.12 sd in language, 0.10 sd in social studies, and 0.19 sd in science were ruled out with 90 percent confidence.
  • No distinct difference was seen for the improvement of specific subgroups either, including gender, race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

A similar study, which compared students randomly selected via lottery for G&T-school enrollment and students who signed up for the lottery but were not selected, found similar results.  While in this case G&T students performed significantly better in science, the results in all other areas were indistinguishable.

The case for G&T programs relies largely on the presence of more rigorous courses, more effective teachers and higher-achieving peers.  However, this same body of research explored a contrary factor: the psychological impact that students feel when they perceive they are falling behind.

  • Students selected for G&T programs suddenly find themselves in a much more-competitive atmosphere with other high-achieving students.
  • This causes some who are accustomed to being among the smartest in the course to fall into the middle of the pack, or even the lower end.
  • The study found a 30 percentile drop in grades for those who were barely admitted to G&T.
  • This negative impression can be a crucial factor in subsequent underperformance.

Source: Sa Bui, Scott Imberman and Steven Craig, "Poor Results for High Achievers," Education Next, Winter 2012.

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