University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Do Students in Arkansas’ Gifted Programs Perform Better?

In The View from the OEP on May 12, 2021 at 12:56 pm

You might have heard lately that gifted programs don’t provide much of an academic benefit. The study, by Christopher Redding and Jason Grissom, was based on a nationally representative sample, and examined student test scores in addition to other student outcomes like attendance and engagement in school. The findings have caused some to question the value of gifted programming.

Here at OEP, we have been digging into gifted education in Arkansas. Our previous research found that 30% of the highest achieving 3rd graders are not identified as gifted, and that the biggest factor in a high-achiever not being identified is an economically disadvantaged background.

In our newest research, we examine how the longer-term achievement of high-achieving Arkansas students who are identified as gifted compared to similarly high-achieving students who are not identified as gifted. We operationalize high-achieving as scoring at or above the 95th percentile statewide on the 3rd grade state assessment. We follow five groups of these high achieving 3rd graders through 8th grade, and examine how their scores change over time.

You can read the policy brief or the full paper for more details, but we find large, statistically significant gains in academic achievement for high-achieving students who were identified as gifted. The relationship was more pronounced in mathematics achievement than in literacy achievement. The findings are consistent across our five independent cohorts.

For the purpose of illustration, check out the graphs below which represent the average statewide achievement percentile for the group of high-achieving students who were in 3rd grade in 2013-14 and 8th grade in 2017-18. The top graph (orange lines) shows mathematics achievement, while the bottom graph (blue lines) shows literacy achievement. In both content areas, although student performance was similar in 3rd grade, students who were identified as G/T consistently demonstrate higher achievement in every year that follows.

Average Percentile on Mathematics Assessment, Cohort 5. N=1,688
Average Percentile on Literacy Assessment, Cohort 5. N=1,615

A couple things are important to note:

  • The average achievement percentile for G/T and Non-G/T students drop in both math and literacy before rising again. When examining performance over time for a sample selected for very high achievement on the third grade test, we expect that the sample’s average score will move somewhat closer to the statewide average (the 50th percentile).
  • Students in our study completed three different exams over the time period examined: Benchmark, PARCC, and ACT Aspire. Although we standardized the scores to z-scores to allow comparison over time, the PARCC results for all of our groups are consistently lower than the preceding or subsequent scores. This group of students took the Benchmark exams in 3rd and 4th grade, the PARCC assessment in 5th grade, and the ACT Aspire in 6th through 8th grades.
  • These graphs are simple illustrations of descriptive trends, and do not control for any student or district characteristics.

In order to account for other factors that we believe would impact student achievement, we conduct multivariate regressions by year and subject for our 5 cohorts of high-achieving 3rd graders. We find G/T identification is associated with math scores that are between 10% and 39% higher (depending on the grade and year) than those of similarly high-achieving students who were not identified as G/T. In literacy the relationship was somewhat less pronounced, as G/T identification is associated with literacy scores that are between 4% and 24% higher (depending on the grade and year) than those of similarly high-achieving students who were not identified as G/T.

Even though this study does not provide causal inferences, it highlights a consistent positive association between gifted services and longer-term student academic achievement for those students that perform in the top 5% on third grade state assessments of literacy and mathematics. This is in contrast to other studies that have found little to no impacts (e.g., Adelson et al., 2012; Redding and Grissom, in press).

The association between academic growth and gifted education may range from curriculum, peer effects, to teachers’ ability to identify the right students who are most likely to benefit from gifted services provided, the motivational or labeling effect of being identified as gifted, in addition to the basic set of individual differences in characteristics or aptitudes that selected students may bring. While we cannot identify what aspects of gifted education in Arkansas casually contribute, individually or in combination, to increased student achievement, our findings are valuable because they provide an academic window into what happens from the 3rd through 8th grade to high achieving students across Arkansas who are and are not identified as G/T.

We note that state assessment scores do not address all the aspects of Arkansas’ G/T model and thus the associations we pick up may not necessarily capture those aspects of identification and programming.

However, it seems like the current G/T process in Arkansas is working for students. School districts at the minimum should keep their G/T practices to help high potential and ability students until any causal mechanism is detected. Though G/T seems to be associated with positive academic outcomes for students, this does not rule out improvements or expansions to the identification or programming processes that might be useful, such as using mathematics and literacy measures as selection tools not just as evaluation tools. Additionally, the success of Arkansas, in a sense, may illuminate useful strategies that may lead to more effective educational opportunities for high achieving students in other states and regions.

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