Study by UC Berkeley professor, colleague questions effects of gifted education

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A study from a UC Berkeley professor and his colleague suggests that elementary school students who benefit from gifted and talented programs are not only students with high IQs but also those who score highly on standardized exams.

Findings show that providing a specialized classroom environment for students with high standardized test scores but relatively lower IQs than their “gifted” counterparts experience the most improvement in their test scores — particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are commonly excluded from gifted and talented programs.

Conducted by UC Berkeley economics professor David Card and University of Miami economics associate professor Laura Giuliano, the research is considered one of the only two studies evaluating the effects of gifted education.
“Unfortunately, there’s not enough scientific knowledge on how any of these programs work,” Card said.

The researchers pulled from elementary school students in a large, urban district in Florida. Students within the district are admitted to gifted programs, determined by a high IQ score.

To fill out empty seats in the gifted class, the district would admit students who scored at the top of their third-grade class in standardized tests. Researchers found that these students improved more in their standardized test scores as a result of enrolling in the gifted class.

Researchers, however, found that placing students who were admitted to the specialized class for their high IQ performed well overall, but their performance was not aided by being in the specialized classroom.

Giuliano was motivated to research the education system because her son was starting school, and after beginning the study, she discovered a lack of research for gifted programs and their measurable effects on student performance.

Students, traditionally, are admitted to gifted and talented programs on the basis of their IQ — a method that was deemed controversial in the 1970s by those who believed IQ tests to be racially biased in their application, according to the study.

Most studies on gifted programs focus on advising how they should be run rather than the programs’ evaluations, Card said.

Part of the difficulty of this research lies in attaining expensive data and determining who is gifted and who is not.

It is difficult, furthermore, to gauge whether a child’s performance is due to his or her natural academic abilities or is a result of parents who take a more active role in their child’s academic prowess.

If a mother takes on an active role, for example, then a child has a greater opportunity to be admitted to a gifted program, Card said.

Researchers plan to continue by studying whether fourth- to fifth-grade students in these gifted programs continue to demonstrate high-achieving results in high school as well as the effects of an advanced math track on middle-school students.

Lydia Tuan covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tuanlydia.