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What Predicts Growth for Gifted Students?

A few years back, Jonathan Wai and I embarked on a study to examine predictors of academic growth among academically advanced (gifted) youth. Using a large sample of students (more than 480,000!) who took the ACT test in seventh grade (as part of a talent search program) and again in 11th or 12th grade, we were able to measure academic growth during most of their high school years. Using data collected when students register for the ACT test, we examined predictors of that growth. The predictors we examined included sociodemographic variables (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, parent education level); high school coursework and grades; school characteristics; vocational interest scores (e.g., realistic, investigative, conventional); and extracurricular activities. Data were collected across 21 graduating cohorts of students spanning 1996-2017 and we also tested whether academic growth improved over this period.

The study’s results confirmed that even gifted students are subject to persistent educational inequities. For example, lower academic growth was observed for students attending high-poverty public schools and rural schools, students of color, students of lower family income, and students whose parents did not attend college. Worse yet, the growth disparities at high-poverty public schools and for Hispanic students appeared to get worse over the 21-year study period.

Predictors Associated with Academic Growth Among Academically Advanced Youth


The study confirmed that academically advanced students who take challenging courses in high school—particularly in STEM areas—tend to experience more growth. Taking calculus, chemistry, trigonometry, and other advanced math courses appeared to have the largest associations with academic growth. Further, growth was higher for students who took courses with special designations (Advanced Placement, accelerated, or honors). While no surprise, this shows that making rigorous courses available, electing to take those courses, and putting forth effort in those courses (reflected in higher grades) all have the potential to lead to higher growth.

We were surprised to find that male students experienced more academic growth than female students. Interestingly, students with higher investigative (e.g., enjoy learning about scientific phenomena) and conventional (e.g., enjoy recordkeeping and other systematic business-related activities) interest scores had higher growth, whereas students with higher realistic (e.g., enjoy working with tools and mechanical/electrical equipment) interest scores had lower growth. Another surprise was that academic growth was positively related to participation in some extracurricular activities (instrumental music, debate, school or community service organizations) but negatively related to others (fraternities/sororities/social clubs, radio,-TV, varsity athletics).

The average ACT Composite score was 17.7 when the students were in seventh grade and 26.7 when they were in 11th or 12th grade, so students gained two points per year on the ACT scale. In a positive sign of educational progress—at least for academically advanced youth—growth improved significantly over the 21-year period, especially over the last 13 years. Unfortunately, the same level of improvement was not observed over the 21-year period for traditionally underserved groups. In particular, the improvement trend was less pronounced for African American, Hispanic, and low-income students.

Our work led to a paper in the flagship journal in gifted education, Gifted Child Quarterly: What Boosts Talent Development? Examining Predictors of Academic Growth in Secondary School Among Academically Advanced Youth Across 21 Years. As an unexpected bonus, we were awarded the 2020 Michael Pyryt Collaboration Award for our paper from the American Educational Research Association (AERA). This award recognizes collaborations involving scholars in the field of giftedness, creativity, or talent (Jonathan) with outside collaborators who bring new insights to the field (me). Jonathan’s research and prior work has included cultivating talent among gifted youth, and I have worked as a statistician at ACT since 2003, applying statistical reasoning to our research on improving educational outcomes.

You can learn about other important research contributions happening in the field of education and measurement by following AERA’s annual conference, which kicked off (virtually) yesterday and runs through April 12.

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