Students in a group reading textbooksMore than three million students in the United States are involved in gifted and talented education programs, but little formal research has been done to confirm or deny the effectiveness of these programs. A new study by researchers from Michigan State University, Cornell University, and the University of Houston has found that “marginal” students in gifted programs—those who barely qualified—do no perform any better on standardized tests than students who almost qualified for the program. This indicates that learning with higher-achieving peers does not yield the boost that many educators hope it does.

The researchers analyzed records from over 14,000 fifth-graders in an urban school district, scrutinizing scores on national tests in math, science, reading, social studies, and language arts. The team focused their evaluations on students who barely qualified for gifted and talented programs and on students whose grades just barely disqualified them from the same, both based on academic performance. They also compared students who were selected by random lottery for a magnet program and those who were not accepted.

The results demonstrated that the marginal students in the gifted program did not improve any more than the non-qualifying students in any test subject. In the case of the magnet program, the magnet school students improved in science, but scores in the other four subjects were equivalent between the gifted and magnet students.

These findings suggest that there is no de facto improvement in academic performance simply from being around higher-performing students. This is in contrast to popular educational theory that students do better in school when paired with higher-achieving peers who can act as mentors.

“This paper is part of a growing body of literature suggesting that just because you have stronger peers doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to perform better, commented Scott Imberman, associate professor of economics and education.

This research is published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.

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