"This paper is part of a growing body of literature suggesting that just because you have stronger peers doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to perform better," says Scott Imberman. (Credit: Alvin Trusty/Flickr)

Smart students don’t boost other classmates’ grades

Being in a classroom full of “the best and brightest” students may not help marginal ones, according to new research that contradicts popular theory.

The study shows that students in a middle school gifted and talented program performed no better on national tests than a similar group of students who didn’t qualify for the program.

“This paper is part of a growing body of literature suggesting that just because you have stronger peers doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to perform better,” says Scott Imberman, associate professor of economics and education at Michigan State University.

Gifted and talented programs have grown in popularity, with more than 3 million students now enrolled nationwide. The study, published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, provides an important first step in understanding the effects of gifted and talented programs on students.

Using a sample of more than 14,000 fifth-graders in an urban school district, researchers analyzed students’ standardized test scores in math, science, reading, social studies, and language arts.

No improvement

The study targeted a group of children who qualified for a gifted and talented program by barely meeting a certain threshold based on past academic performance. Their test scores were compared to the students who just missed meeting the threshold—in other words, students who were very similar academically.

The marginal students in the gifted and talented program showed no improvement in test scores over the non-qualifying students in any of the five subjects.

The study also looked at gifted and talented students who were picked in a lottery for a “magnet” program, which emphasizes a more intensive, specialized curriculum.

The researchers compared test scores of the magnet students who won the lottery to the gifted and talented students who lost the lottery and found no significant difference in four of the five subjects: math, reading, social studies and language arts. The magnet students did show improvement in science.

Sa Bui of Cornell University and Steven Craig of the University of Houston were co-authors on the study.

Source: Michigan State University

chat6 Comments


  1. GT Mom

    I understand what this is saying about students who are at the border of being in a magnet school. However, this article does not discuss whether magnet programs are helpful to those students who may be bored [and lose ground] in a standard program. I am quite concerned about the Common Core State Standards Initiative, and what impact implementing it may have on those students who are ready to move ahead of their age group in various subjects.

  2. Judy Wylene-Hubbard

    The goal of gifted programs isn’t – or shouldn’t be – raised test scores or or progress that can be measured easily or quickly.

    Helping smart kids become outstanding, contributing, pro-social adults is a long-term project. No quick results to reassure the auditors.

    Long-term, this is where to find the pay-off for the human race.

  3. Denton Mitchell

    The original paper was done 2-1/2 years ago. It reads like someone doing his/her Master’s Thesis. Having been in the trenches for 15 years, I read nothing here that is of clear value. I agree with the sentiment of the other commenters that the focus should be on encouraging the brightest to be the best. Other programs should focus on challenging those not performing well. Teachers always have a basic selling job to do – explain WHY the student should take interest in the subject matter at hand in a way meaningful to the student. My experience tells me that there are not “slow” students in very large numbers – but rather that there are far too many poorly focused curricula abroad.

  4. Babu G. Ranganathan

    My Letter Below Was Published In USA Today 5/30/2012

    Creativity, not class size

    There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether large or small class sizes make a difference in learning (“Column: Romney stubs toe in flawed education speech”).

    When I taught social studies in elementary school (back in the ’80s), I used the peer pressure existing among young people in a positive way to make learning fun and challenging.

    I divided the class into groups of four or five and held contests. Students in each group helped each other learn so that their group would win. Any teacher can do this with any subject in a room of any size.

    Create homework groups and see who comes out ahead in homework assignments. Giving group exams was fun!

    Keep group grades separate from individual grades so group grades won’t count academically. Don’t fail any group that shows effort.

    Amazing things begin to happen: Fast learners in each group patiently help the slower ones. Everyone learned in my class. No one failed individually or as a group.

    Be creative.

    Babu G. Ranganathan; Boyertown, Pa.

  5. Ryne

    I am a seventh year Title I math teacher in Austin. A majority of students that are labeled GT are not. They simply get nominated and asked questions by a GT coordinator and there you go, GT. As far as a student being bored, that describes about 99% of middle school kids. Having seen and worked with over 1,000 students in all three grade levels and every level of mathematics middle school offers, this article hits dead on. A ‘marginal’ GT kid is not a GT kid. They are called ‘bright’ students. Which is why there is no difference in scores. Try the kid that’s in the top 1% in the GT programs vs a bright student that is labeled GT. The gap will appear.

  6. Kathi

    Bright students helping other students and thus doing well themselves only applies to students with an IQ up to about 130. Over that and the brighter students are held back by their peers and actually do more poorly than when they are allowed to work on ahead by themselves. The point of GT programs should be to allow students to learn at their own pace, which is far beyond what is a standard classroom curriculum. Engaging them in material that is a challenge to them teaches them persistence, allows them to struggle with a subject (which normally does not happen for these students until college level) and shows them that “learning” does not mean “already knowing something.”

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