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What exactly is an ‘underachiever,’ and why are there so many of them in our schools?


Really smart kids aren’t usually the ones that educators and parents worry much about when it comes to doing school work and getting good grades. But this piece argues that they should.

It was written by Saiying Steenbergen-Hu, a research assistant professor of the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. The project is an effort to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas in the public square.

Steenbergen-Hu is the author of “What one hundred years of research says about ability-grouping and acceleration: Findings of two second-order meta-analysis,” and she received the 2018 Award for Excellence in Research from the Mensa Foundation.

By Saiying Steenbergen-Hu

People commonly believe: smart kids will succeed in school.

But what if even the best, brightest, and most gifted students fail to achieve?

Scholars have coined a few terms for the elephant in the room — underachieve, underachievement, or underachieving.

In fact, underachievement of gifted and talented students has been prevalent and persistent.

Based on the definition of giftedness by the National Association for Gifted Children, gifted and talented students often refer to those whose general cognitive aptitudes or academic abilities in specific subjects, such as math, reading, or science, is significantly above their same-age peers. In a school context, underachievement occurs when there is a discrepancy between expected achievement given one’s academic potential and actual performance that one demonstrates.

Every middle school or high school teacher may have a few such stories to tell on top of his/her head. According to the 1984 National Commission on Excellence in Education, half of the gifted students failed to achieve a level matching their abilities. The numbers have changed little 25 years later. Based on a review of recent research, my colleagues and I found that as high as 52 percent of academically gifted K-12 students became underachievers at some point.

In a more nuanced fashion, underachievement manifests as high-achieving students failing to maintain on the top over time. A 2011 study by Thomas B. Fordham Institute, “Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students,” shed some light on this. This study found that, among a group of students who scored at the highest level on the Measures of Academic Progress™ of the Northwest Evaluation Association™, about 30 to 50 percent of initial high flyers “lost altitude” at varied points over the course of K-12 education.

When mindfulness is even encouraged in elementary classrooms these days, how can we afford not to mind the issue of underachievement?

Failing to nurture the highest intellectual potentials is hurting America’s global standing on educational excellence. In 2013, Jonathan Plucker and his colleagues released a thought-provoking report, “Talent on the Sidelines: Excellence Gaps and America’s Persistent Talent Underclass.”

According to this report, on the international Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study of 2011, approximately 16 percent of American fourth graders scored at the highest level (625+) on math, significantly lower than major comparison countries such as England, Russian Federation, Japan, and Korea. For American eighth graders, the number was down to 6 percent, still significantly lower than their international comparison peers.

The issue of underachievement looms even larger in a racial and social-economic landscape. According to National Center for Education Statistics in 2013, the average mathematics and reading the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores were much lower for students whose family income qualified them for the National School Lunch Program than those whose family income was above the eligibility threshold.

Underachievement also raises concerns for education inequality, and subsequently social inequity. For many minority and disadvantaged gifted children and adolescents, underachieving leads to deprivation of opportunities to receive educational services specifically tailored for gifted learners.

Data from the Office for Civil Rights showed that although African American students constituted approximately 16.7 percent of the student population, only 9.8 percent of them attended gifted programs as of 2009. The situation was no different for Hispanic students, constituting 22.3 percent of students whereas only 15.4 percent of them receiving gifted services. Ironically, lack of support and needed services leave underachieving gifted students even more behind. A vicious cycle continues.

For many concerned parents and teachers, a most puzzling question would be: why do smart kids underachieve?

Extensive research shows that gifted students get poor grades or even drop out of school for a number of reasons, such as low motivation, boredom, dislike of school, social-emotional difficulties, and unstable family life.

For example, Joseph Rezulli and his colleague of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented found the majority of both male and female gifted high schoolers dropped out because they didn’t like school. A 2018 research review revealed that low or lack of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, self-regulation, and self-efficacy also account for the underachievement of gifted kids.

Understanding how we intervene successfully to turning the life of gifted underachievers around would sheds light on how we can help a more diverse and broader student population. Researchers have explored a range of interventions mostly designed to help students on skills to enhance learning motivation, self-regulation, goal-setting, and strengths development. Some interventions act as supporting systems through providing personalized support for students through mentorship or peer support groups.

In a currently ongoing research, my colleagues and I found that, by in large, such interventions are rather limited in boosting academic performances of gifted underachievers.

However, some students believed that receiving support from mentors or peer groups to be beneficial, particularly on helping them find schools more meaningful and relevant, connect with peers and mentors, improve self-regulation and work habits, and increase motivation to change.

Minding the issue of underachievement in gifted students goes well beyond lending helpful hands to a few smart kids. When even the best and brightest kids struggle in school, the issue alludes to something larger: more must be done to make schools a better place to learn for students of all capacities.