Published Online: July 13, 2011
Published in Print: July 13, 2011, as Study Finds Gifted Classes Don't Benefit Pupils at the Margin

Study Finds Few Learning Gains from Gifted Services

As educators and lawmakers struggle to define the evolving role of education for the nation's gifted students, a new study suggests that some aspects of gifted education that have been appropriated to improve the achievement of a broader population of students may provide less of a boost than commonly thought.

A new working paperRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader by the National Bureau of Economic Research, in Cambridge, Mass., evaluated the effectiveness of both in-class gifted programs and magnet schools for more than 8,000 middle school students in an unnamed Southwestern school district of more than 200,000 students.

The University of Houston researchers who conducted the study found that students in these programs were more likely than other students to do in-depth coursework with top teachers and high-performing peers. Yet students who barely met the 5th grade cutoff criteria to enter the gifted programs fared no better academically in 7th grade, after a year and a half in the program, than did similarly high-potential students who just missed qualifying for gifted identification.

"You're getting these better teachers; you're getting these higher-achieving students paired up with you," said Scott A. Imberman, an economics professor and a study coauthor. "To our surprise, what happened was very little."

Gifted Services in Middle School

Services for gifted students vary nationwide, a 2008-09 survey of state program administrators found.

Tom Loveless, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, and a coauthor of the 2008 study, "High-Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind," said the NBER report "makes a contribution that a lot of studies currently do not" by using statistical methods to control for the kinds of students who participate in gifted programs.

But gifted-education advocates, including Mr. Loveless, argue the study does not provide enough details on the curricula and services in the district's programs to inform the larger debate about what gifted education should look like and who will benefit from it.

"To look at this as a blanket statement on all gifted programs would be a disingenuous way of looking at gifted education, because it does vary so dramatically," said Kim Hymes, the director of policy and advocacy for the Arlington, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children, which advocates for gifted children and those with disabilities.

The NBER researchers did not describe in detail the curricula or specific services of the district's gifted programs, but district officials reported that their gifted and talented programs focused on exposing students to more in-depth discussions of grade-level topics, known as an enrichment approach, rather than acceleration, or moving through existing material faster and adding new topics.

Broad Criteria

While the study identifies these programs as gifted programs, their characteristics echo typical Advanced Placement or honors courses: more detailed and in-depth course materials, taught by high-performing teachers, with other high-performing peers. Experts noted the entry criteria, while rigorous, were also broad enough to include 20 percent of the student population.

"There are a lot of mismatches out there," Jane Clarenbach, the director of public education for the Washington-based nonprofit National Association for Gifted Children said. "When gifted education is perceived as the only quality option, parents want their kids in it, whether they belong there or not."

Fifth graders were identified for the district program based on a combination of criteria, such as scoring above the 80th percentile on total scores in math, reading, science and social studies on the Stanford Achievement Test, high grades or teacher recommendations. Students got bonus points if they had disabilities or limited English proficiency, or if they lived in poverty. As a result, researchers found students at the eligibility threshold for the program ranged widely in actual academic performance, from 45 to 97 in national percentile rankings in reading and from the 55th percentile to 97th percentile in math on the Stanford Achievement Tests.

Researchers tracked 2,600 7th graders and 5,500 6th graders who had been evaluated for the gifted programs in 5th grade.

In the first experiment, researchers compared students who barely made the cut-off with students who just missed it. This method, called a discontinuity analysis, allows researchers to compare the effect of the program on two groups of statistically similar students when pupils cannot be randomly assigned.

In a separate experiment, researchers also compared gifted students who were chosen via lotteries for one of the district's two gifted magnet schools with students who applied for the school lotteries but were not selected. On average, the gifted students who applied for these schools scored significantly higher on all of the content tests, and had lower discipline problems and higher attendance than did the average gifted students in the district overall.

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In both cases, participating in a gifted program did increase the likelihood that students would take more intensive courses and the likelihood that they would be taught by teachers considered highly effective, as measured by their students' test scores, yet it did not significantly improve students' academic achievement any more than that of those who missed out on the programs. Students at the elite magnet schools did improve slightly, but only in science.

The researchers suggested that for a student who barely made it into the gifted program, the stress of working with very high-performing classmates may have outweighed the benefits of more in-depth courses and top teachers.

"The conventional wisdom is if you are surrounded by high-achieving peers, you will benefit," Mr. Imberman said. "It's a bit of a cautionary tale."

Vol. 30, Issue 36, Page 15

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