To answer the questions in its title, this NBER study analyzes administrative and test score data in the upper elementary grades from one of the country’s largest school districts (not identified). The district provides gifted services to three groups of fourth-grade kids, who are mixed together post-identification: 1) non-disadvantaged students who score at least 130 points on an IQ test, the state cut off for gifted eligibility; 2) English language learners and low-income youngsters with IQs over 116 points (a lower threshold allowed under law for these kids); and 3) a group of non-gifted pupils—called “high achievers”—who scored highest among their school/grade cohort on the state test in the previous year. The third group comprises the bulk of students in the program. The district requires schools to create a gifted classroom whenever there’s at least one identified student in a school/grade cohort (e.g., school A, grade 4). And before a teacher is assigned to such a classroom, he or she must complete a specialized five-course training sequence. Researchers utilize a series of analytic models and find that the program had no effect on the reading or math achievement of the first two groups, the disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged kids identified as gifted by their IQ scores. (These results likely weren’t due to gifted kids “topping out” on state tests, because a mere two percent of the non-disadvantaged kids received the maximum reading score.) The third group, however, enjoyed large, positive achievement gains in math and reading—up to 0.5 standard deviations. Moreover, this boost persisted through fifth grade and was particularly concentrated among poor and minority students. So why would a program impact high scorers and not those with high IQ? Perhaps high test scores demonstrate non-cognitive traits, like longer attention spans and willingness to meet social expectations, which are important in gifted classrooms. In any event, the findings suggest that creating separate classrooms in every school for top-performing students is a cost-effective way to significantly boost performance, even in the poorest neighborhoods.
SOURCE: David Card and Laura Giuliano, “Does Gifted Education Work? For Which Students?,” National Bureau of Economic Research (September 2014).