Researchers find little evidence that gifted programs boost student achievement

May 21, 2021
Gifted programs only really benefit those who are privileged in other ways. (Pexels/Mary Taylor)

Gifted programs only really benefit those who are privileged in other ways. (Pexels/Mary Taylor)

Black and low-income students are underrepresented in the typical elementary school gifted program and see fewer quantifiable academic benefits from such programs than their white peers — although overall gains from such programs may be small regardless of race and socioeconomic background.

Analyzing a dataset from the National Center for Educational Statistics, which followed 18,170 American students who began kindergarten during the 2010-2011 school year through the course of their elementary education, a study published April 26 in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis found evidence that the typical gifted program only marginally benefits elementary students' achievement-related outcomes, while nonachievement outcomes, such as absences and engagement in school, are not affected.

Christopher Redding, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Florida and co-author of the study, said the research shows that policymakers need to review guidelines on gifted service offerings by states and the means by which students are selected to participate in these programs.

"We hope that our results suggesting that the benefits of gifted services may not be equally distributed might lead practitioners in gifted education to take close looks at their offerings to assess whether they are adequate for serving the needs of high-ability students from historically marginalized student populations," Redding told The Academic Times.

State policymakers could also take steps to increase the effectiveness of gifted programs, both on average and for diverse student populations, he added, though he didn't have any specific policy recommendations.

"Unfortunately," Redding said, "our attempt to link specific state policies to student outcomes uncovered little evidence to guide which steps would be most productive."

The average student's participation in an elementary school's gifted program was insignificantly associated with slight improvements in reading and mathematics achievement. For example, researchers found the typical student scored in the 78th percentile for reading and in the 76th percentile for math during years in which they did not receive gifted services.  During years in which these students participated in a gifted program, typical scores for reading ranked in the 80th percentile for reading and in the 77th percentile for math.

Asian children demonstrated more notable gains in math after joining a gifted program, with net gains slightly higher in mathematics than those of white participants.  Black students, however, did not experience even the small reading gains that their white peers did, showing zero difference on average after receiving gifted services. Low-income students of all races also tended to incur fewer academic gains than wealthier participants.

The study also confirmed prior research suggesting that Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in schools' gifted programs, with the average student also coming from a more privileged socioeconomic background than those not participating in the program. Gifted students were more likely to have entered kindergarten at an older age than their peers, to speak English at home and to be rated by their parents as having excellent health. 

Redding said one of the research's primary limitations is its high-level view of student achievement following participation in gifted programs; because of this, researchers were unable to record the specific type or intensity of gifted services each student received. 

Measurement issues pertaining to nonachievement outcomes and selection effects could also have influenced the study's findings, since the performance of gifted students is often related to changes in student motivation or parental investments that correspond with a student's participation in a gifted program. Future researchers, Redding said, should investigate the relative contributions of programs' design, intensity, instructional quality and peer effects.

"Studies with more fine-grained information about gifted program delivery, and how it varies by higher- and lower-poverty schools are a critical next step for future research," Redding said. "In addition, future research is needed that can better speak to the mechanisms that explain why gifted programs have a relationship with student outcomes."

The study, "Do students in gifted programs perform better? Linking gifted program participation to achievement and nonachievement outcomes," published April 26 in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, was authored by Christopher Redding, University of Florida; and Jason A. Grissom, Vanderbilt University.

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