Underachievers Research Paper

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In general underachievement is defined as a discrepancy between potential (what a student ought to be able to do) and actual performance (what a student is demonstrating). However, there is little consensus about how best to define underachievement, particularly among gifted students. In some instances an underachieving gifted student is defined broadly, in others cases it is defined as limited to specific criteria. One definition of the underachieving gifted student, for example, is when a gap exists between a student’s achievement test scores or academic grades and intelligence test scores. Such a broad delineation would result in a comparatively large number of students identified as gifted. In contrast, a more specific definition of the underachieving gifted student is one who has a Stanford-Binet (IQ test) score of 132 or above and a percentile ranking of 75 or below on the California Test of Basic Skill. This definition limits the underachieving gifted student to only a handful of students.

Professionals whose responsibility it is to identify underachieving gifted students (UGS) for intervention must keep in mind that whatever definition is decided upon will determine the instruments and types of selection procedures used. The definitions, instruments, and selection procedures will ultimately determine who receives special education programs and who does not.

Identification Process

Typical methods of identifying UGSs rely on standardized measures (for example, IQ tests, achievement tests), teacher perceptions (for example, checklists, grades, assessment of motivation, assessment of daily work, comparisons with other students), and self-perceptions (for example, personal information and insight, comparisons with peers). The most common method of identifying UGSs in the early twenty-first century involve examining the difference between achievement test scores and intelligence test scores. According to the psychologist Anne Anastasi (1976), the statistical nature of achievement and intelligence tests “assures” a percentage of underachievers. Anastasi claims that categorizing students by comparing achievement scores with intelligence scores is a misuse of the test results, since no two tests correlate perfectly (Dowdall and Colangelo 1982). The psychometrician Robert L. Thorndike (1963) further discounted the use of intelligence tests for identifying gifted students, warning that IQ scores should not be used to assume a particular level of performance (Dowdall and Colangelo 1982).

Another method of identifying UGSs is teacher observations. A teacher’s judgments and grades have the advantage of being based upon direct experience with the student. The disadvantage of these measures is that they are often biased. The discrepancy between potential and classroom achievement as measured by teacher assessments often reflects nonachievement factors, such as neatness, good behavior, motivation, and teacher attitudes, rather than pure academic ability. Research has consistently found that teachers tend to rate students who are most similar to themselves in social, racial, and economic background as more desirable and successful compared to students who are dissimilar to the teachers. Another problem with the identification process is an indiscriminate use of the tests to identify the “prototypical gifted student.” This practice is based on the assumption that gifted students are a homogeneous group, all of whom can profit equally from a common curriculum.

Some scholars point out that a more beneficial approach may be to use the information gleaned from achievement and intelligence tests to diagnostically determine the strengths and needs of the individual student, regardless to how the student is classified. With individualized information, curricular modules and activities could be developed that address the particular strengths and weaknesses of each student.

Gifted Underachievers’ Traits

Overall the literature consistently reports positive qualities of interpersonal effectiveness, independence, and self-assurance for academically gifted students and the reverse for UGSs. UGSs appear to have more in common with underachieving average students than with gifted students. Both UGSs and underachieving average students tend to be male and exhibit more social immaturity, more antisocial behavior, and lower self-esteem than gifted students. In addition UGSs and underachieving average students are also more likely to come from unstable, lower income, single-parented homes. The only consistent difference between UGSs and underachieving average students is the high scores of UGSs on standardized IQ and achievement tests.

Underachievement Causes

A variety of factors contribute to the underachievement of high ability students, including emotional and social problems, lack of an appropriate curriculum, and learning and self-regulation difficulties. The attitudes of teachers and counselors toward a child may also be responsible for the gap occurring between student potential and performance.

Other researchers contend that the underachieving gifted problems are deeply rooted in family interaction patterns or attitudes toward education. Educational psychologists have suggested that underachievement for gifted students is a choice, a form of social self-defense because of strong cultural or peer identification. This phenomenon of “deliberate underachievement” has been found to be particularly evident among gifted adolescent females, as a response to perceived sex-role expectations, and among African American gifted students involved in the process of adolescent impression management, as an attempt to control the perceptions other people form of them.

Other scholars contend that for UGSs it is not an issue involving attitudes so much as one of skills (more precisely, the lack of such) or creativity. Given the wide variety of factors contributing to underachievement in high ability students, it is understandable the students thus affected may demonstrate unique learning needs.

Intervention Approaches

Published research on intervention with UGSs can be grouped into two conventional areas. The first group focuses on intensive counseling to address problems of low self-image and feelings of inferiority, while the second group focuses on manipulating the classroom environment.

An overview of the counseling intervention with UGSs indicates that such procedures have not been shown to be consistent or effective. A 1979 study that did report limited success concluded that intensive counseling can be effective only when: (a) counselors are specifically selected and trained, (b) a small number of students are treated, (c) objectives are clearly delineated, and (d) methodology is carefully developed.

Research on the second type of intervention—focusing on altering or modifying the classroom environment—also reported limited success. Critics of these interventions point out that generally such interventions have not begun until high school, although the most crucial time to intervene is during the elementary years. Critics also state that while classroom sizes and ability grouping have been manipulated, teaching strategies, expectations, and curriculum content have not been altered.

Programs that have taken an individualized holistic approach have reported promising results. One such intervention, Joseph Renzulli’s Enrichment Triad Model, is an active process in which students choose to learn. In order to facilitate students becoming creative producers, this model capitalizes on the student’s potential by using an interest-based curriculum, bringing together the student’s ability, interest, learning styles, and a supportive student-teacher relationship.

Given that professionals cannot agree on a definition or the antecedents of underachievement, the adoption of one common intervention is unrealistic. Effective interventions are those that are designed to address the uniqueness of the UGS student in a holistic fashion.


  1. Baum, Susan M., Joseph S. Renzulli, and Thomas Hébert. 1995. The Prism Metaphor: A New Paradigm for Reversing Underachievement. National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. Report CRS-95310. ERIC no. ED402711.
  2. Dowdall, Cynthia, and Nicholas Colangelo. 1982. Understanding Gifted Students: Review and Implications.Gifted Child Quarterly 26 (4): 179–184.
  3. Ford, Donna Y., and Antoinette Thomas. 1997. Underachievement among Gifted Minority Students: Problems and Promises. Council for Exceptional Children.http://www.ericdigests.org/1998-1/gifted.htm.
  4. Frasier, Mary M., Scott L. Hunsaker, Jongyeun Lee, et al. Educators’ Perceptions of Barriers to the Identification of Gifted Children from Economically Disadvantaged and Limited

English Proficient Backgrounds. National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. Report RM95216. ERIC no. ED402711.

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