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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Underachievement in gifted students

by Benjamin Hebebrand, Head of School, Quest Academy

Underachievement in our schools has been called a national crisis; and there are some who claim that underachievement among gifted students is even more prevalent. Research dating back as far as the 1980s show that “between 10 and 20 percent of those who do not complete high school are tested in the gifted range,” according to the Handbook of Gifted Education’s chapter on “Underachievement: A National Epidemic” by Silvia Rimm. The statistics are worse when it comes to graduating from college, as evidenced by 1989 study that showed that “of the top 5% of this country’s high school graduates, 40% do not complete college.”

The most well-known report documenting underachievement, entitled “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative of Educational Reform,” was published in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. This report claimed that “half of gifted children do not work to their abilities in school,” as reported in the “Underachievement” chapter of “Handbook ofGiftedness in Children,” also authored by Silvia Rimm. Generally, it is difficult to calculate the exact number of gifted students who underachieve because there is no real consistency on how to define and measure underachievement.

If we were to define underachievement as a discrepancy between IQ and achievement test scores, one has to research the root cause. Other than psychological defensive patterns that impact student motivation, a root cause can be found in a curriculum not challenging enough – a curriculum that “has given children insufficient exposure to expected learning,” as Rimm notes. Thus, it is, of course, essential to investigate discrepancies between IQ scores and achievement tests with the clear understanding that IQ scores do not perfectly match achievement scores. “We should expect gifted students to be above average in terms of their achievement, but we should not necessarily expect their achievement to be as exceptionally high as their ability,” says Rimm. Therefore, determinations about a lacking curriculum need to be made with care and research, but yet a change of school often provides the beginnings of a turnaround. One of the recommendations made in “The Nation at Risk” report was to increase gifted education services in the form of enrichment and acceleration. It is no coincidence that at that time gifted education programs were introduced in public schools and private gifted education schools such as Quest Academy in Illinois, or Sycamore School in Indiana were founded.

Gifted education scholars D. Betsy McCoach and Sally Reis, both of the University of Connecticut, define gifted underachievers as “students who exhibit a severe discrepancy between expected achievement (as measured by standardized achievement test scores or cognitive or intellectual ability assessments) and actual achievement (as measured by class grades or teacher evaluations).” Teacher assessments do not provide the reliability that standardized tests do, but essentially they provide the “most valid indication of a student’s current level of achievement within a classroom environment.”

According to Ulric Neisser, who led the effort to publish “Intelligence:Known and Unknowns” in 1996 in response to the 1994 publication of “The BellCurve,” “children with high scores on tests of intelligence tend to learn more of what is taught in school than their lower-scoring peers. There may be styles of teaching and methods of instruction that will decrease or increase this correlation, but none that consistently eliminates it has yet been found." 

But yet, the validity of teacher assessments may be compromised, especially at younger grades, “because high-ability students doing easy schoolwork may earn high marks with little effort,” according to Rimm. Continuation of investing little effort on the part of the student may continue for years without being detected by parents because “teachers may ignore incomplete assignments because test scores are high.”

Thus, it is imperative that both teachers and parents not exclusively focus on results and scores, but rather investigate a child’s process of learning. Thus, it is no surprise that checklists and questionnaires are common tools to identify and possibly measure underachievement as well as learning differences that may impede achievement.

In examining some of the research and reports on psychological defensive patterns, it is wise to focus on pressures that gifted children may experience at a higher rate. These pressures, according to Rimm, include:
  • 1) the need to be extraordinarily intelligent, perfect, or ‘smartest;’ 
  • 2) the wish to be extremely creative and unique, which they may translate as nonconformity; and
  • 3) the concern with being admired by peers for appearance and popularity.”
Broadly speaking, the environmental factors that may contribute to underachievement and its associated psychological defensive patterns are:
  • 1) the school environment; 
  • 2) family dynamics; and 
  • 3) peer influences.
Generally speaking, there are some school circumstances that Rimm identifies as not promoting high achievement such as:
  • 1) anti-intellectual school atmospheres in which priorities for athletics or social status overshadow academic and intellectual programs; 
  • 2) attitudes that view gifted programming as elitist; 
  • 3) overly rigid classrooms in which all students study at all times the identical materials in identical time; 
  • 4) “teachers who rigidly fail to see the quality of children’s work because of different values, personal power struggles, or cultural or racial prejudice.” 
Equally general characteristics found in family dynamics contributing to underachievement are:
  • 1) inconsistent parenting, sometimes accentuated by one parent acting as disciplinarian and the other as protector (unfortunately, these trends during a child’s life may become more pronounced leading to even more authoritarian and increasingly protective distribution among the two parent figures); 
  • 2) inconsistent and unpredictable structure and organization in which children may manipulate one or both parents; and 
  • 3) poor family relationships including those with siblings.
As concerns peer influence among adolescents, there are three thoughts to keep in mind:
  • 1) Studies by Sally Reis have shown that “high-achieving peers had a positive influence on gifted students who began to underachieve in high school and contributed to some students’ reversal of their underachievement,” as reported in "Critical Issues and Practices in Gifted Education." 
  • 2) A 1995 study by D.R. and R.E. Clasen showed that “66 percent of high-ability students named peer pressure or the attitude of the other kids, including friends, as the primary force against getting good grades.” 
  • 3) Yet, there is no clear evidence “whether the choice to associate with other non-achievers is a cause or result of gifted students’ underachievement,” according to McCoach and Siegle.
In a subsequent blog, we will dig a little deeper into students’ psychological defensive patterns, the symptoms of which may be easy to spot but “beneath the surface of the apparent characteristics there are more deep-seated concerns that students are protecting,” as Rimm notes.