Northeast Kentucky Association for Gifted Education

Gifted Drouputs? (Scroll down for Differential Instruction...)

For Parents of Gifted Children

Source: Duke TIP-Gifted Letter

The Emotional Edge

What about Gifted Students Who Drop Out?

Volume 8 / Issue 2 Winter 2008


For more than four decades researchers have been interested in learning what happens to gifted students who drop out of high school. Estimates of the number of gifted learners who drop out differ widely, and a figure of 20 percent is often repeated despite the fact that there is little evidence to support it. Recent studies suggest that anywhere from 1 in 50 up to 1 in 200 academically gifted students fails to complete high school, depending on the criteria used to determine giftedness. Although dropping out of school remains relatively uncommon among academically gifted learners, clearly it is an important issue for those students who do.

Parents should also be aware that the increasing cognitive demands of high school curriculum might be a source of difficulty for students who previously may have experienced few, if any, academic challenges.

Findings from studies on gifted underachievement and general education dropouts can give us insights into the study of gifted dropouts. These studies suggest that ability, academic achievement, motivation, drug use, and school culture all can influence students’ dropout decisions. Since gifted students by definition possess strong academic abilities, would gifted learners who choose to leave school without a diploma report different reasons for their decision than general education students? With this question in mind, I began looking for gifted dropouts who were willing to share their stories and attempting to learn more about the seemingly contradictory phenomenon of highly able students failing to graduate from high school.

Through an initial and a follow-up interview, I have spoken so far with a half dozen gifted individuals who had dropped out of high school. These were five females and one male student, from four different states, ranging in age from 18 to 27. Two were Latina and the rest White.


Two themes related to individual differences appeared in the narratives of multiple participants. These included the following:

  • When specifically questioned, a number of individuals noted a particular dislike of, or difficulty with, coursework in mathematics. These same individuals contended elsewhere in the same interview that they thought all subjects were easy (or non-challenging).
  • In high school, some learners reported having relatively few close friends; they found that their age peers seemed to be concerned more with social interaction and less committed to learning or academic performance.

In addition, their schools’ organizational culture sometimes was not structured in a way that would keep these gifted learners enrolled.

  • Gifted students who dropped out viewed their high school classes as ‘more of the same’ and indicated they would have preferred learning something new.
  • Several students recalled a keenly felt realization of differences between the middle school and high school environments, which led to dissatisfaction with high school. In some cases a lack of gifted programming in high school made them no longer feel ‘special’ due to their gifted status, as they had in middle or elementary school.
  • In one case, individualized educational options were only available to the student if she officially stated her intention to drop out.
  • Students whose families frequently moved encountered repeated difficulties in transferring course credit across schools and were forced to repeat coursework they had completed elsewhere. Consistent with findings about dropouts in general education settings, family mobility was evident in most of the cases; few of the participants had remained in the same location throughout high school.

Parenting was discussed indirectly, because I was primarily curious to learn about school- and individual-level influences. In some cases parents apparently had offered little input about the student’s decision to drop out, while other parents actively supported the decision. Early family responsibilities affected two students. One participant at age 16 had entered what turned out to be an unsuccessful marriage as a means of escaping her unhappy home life; another was engaged at the age of 18. In both cases these responsibilities appear to have interfered with these young women’s education.

Most of those interviewed were completing a GED program or attending a four-year or community college, although not all had achieved success in college on their first try. For the two oldest respondents, one was completing a master’s degree, and the other had already obtained one. Notably, this oldest participant reported being satisfied with her non-traditional educational path. After dropping out at age 16, she completed a GED, a year of community college, a four-year degree, and a Master of Arts degree at a competitive public university by the time she turned 21. She noted that her classmates who had remained in high school were still undergraduates at the time she finished her master’s degree.

Implications for Parents

So, what can parents learn from these students’ experiences? It appears that some gifted learners may need extra help in mathematics, and all might benefit from parental assistance in coming to grips with the changing nature of curriculum between middle school, high school, and college. Help your children understand that during these school transitions, learning often progresses from a group-oriented approach in elementary school toward one that emphasizes individual performance in the higher grades. The approaches toward giftedness by schools change over time too, from a view that places emphasis on ability and potential in the early grades to one that takes into account prior academic achievements. Parents should also be aware that the increasing cognitive demands of high school curriculum might be a source of difficulty for students who previously may have experienced few, if any, academic challenges.

Several schools showed unwillingness to individualize educational plans and to offer flexible alternatives to traditional curricular tracks; these positions were at least partially responsible for some of these gifted learners’ decisions to drop out. This is consistent with other studies that have found a lack of acceleration or related curricular options available to most high-ability learners. The general lack of gifted education training and programming in secondary settings may also be partially responsible for these difficulties, as misconceptions abound about academic acceleration. Parents who desire to keep their children on track to a traditional high school diploma should strive to be aware of the regulations and options available at their child’s school and should carefully monitor their child’s progress toward this goal. Forming or joining a state or local advocacy organization (see sidebar) can be a great help in developing awareness of the experiences of other gifted students and parents in your local area.

Finally, parents should keep in mind that dropping out of high school is not the end of the world. The student’s education becomes a more winding path that is likely more difficult. Although it is not the traditional educational trajectory, in time, it still can lead to success in higher education and in life.
Michael S. Matthews, PhD

Michael Matthews is an assistant professor in the gifted education program at the University of South Florida in Tampa.



National Association for Gifted Children
State Affiliate Association Web sites

“Gifted students who drop out: New evidence from a Southeastern state,” by M. S. Matthews, Roeper Review, 28, 2006, 216–223

“Factors that differentiate underachieving gifted students from high-achieving gifted students,” by D.B. McCoach and D. Siegle, Gifted Child Quarterly, 47(2), 2003, 144-154.

How to Parent so Children will Learn: Clear Strategies for Raising Happy, Achieving Children, by S. Rimm, Three Rivers, 1996


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Source: Gifted Exchange

Are 20% of high school drop-outs gifted?

I spent a year as a fact-checker at USA Today before embarking on a freelance career. The experience of hunting down statistics gave me a statistic of my own: the majority of oft-cited stats are completely inaccurate. We do not know that telecommuters are 40% more productive than office-based workers. We do not know that 80% of 2-income couples have hired a cleaning service. We do not know that only 5% of Americans have a valid passport. Nor do we know that 95% of small businesses fail. Sometimes authors would make the stats sound more accurate by saying "According to the Census Bureau..." or some such, but when asked for back-up, it would always be a link to another news article or someone's website, never a primary source. And, indeed, when I called the primary source, I'd get a lot of loud sighing. In the internet age, incorrect stats get bandied about a lot.

Which leads me to the topic for today's post: the statistic that 20% of high school dropouts are gifted. This stat gets used in a variety of formats, which even at first blush makes it seem problematic. Some people twist it to say that 20% of gifted students drop out. Others say "up to 20% of high school dropouts test in the gifted range" (I think I've been guilty of this one). There are old studies that mention something around this number. The 1972 Maryland Report to Congress seems to have used an 18% figure. In 1973, E. Nyquist presented a paper to the National Conference on Gifted saying 19% of New York high school dropouts were gifted. E. Robertson's 1991 article in Equity and Excellence on "Neglected Dropouts: The Gifted and Talented" said 18-25% of GT students drop out. From there things get more slippery. Some people cite one Solorzano 1983 stat saying the figure is up to 18%, but this turns out to be an article in US News & World Report, not an original study.

Of course, all of this hinges on there being a clear definition of giftedness. There isn't one. Some school districts in the past used a clear 130+ IQ definition, but this method has fallen out of favor in terms of more comprehensive assessments, achievement tests and the like. There isn't even a completely uniform definition of a dropout. Some people go back to school later in life -- or at least plan to, and hence wouldn't identify themselves as dropouts. Just on an extremely long sabbatical.

All that being said, I've spent the past few hours reading a late 2002 report from the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented about "Giftedness and High School Dropouts" that has a bit more rigor to it. The report was mainly designed to find out why gifted kids drop out. The answer is that they drop out for the same reasons other kids do. They don't like school, they're failing school, they're pregnant, they want to get a job, their parents didn't finish school, their home life doesn't particularly support learning, etc. The report found that "at risk" gifted kids -- those of lower socioeconomic status -- are more likely to drop out, as are gifted minority kids. These are unfortunate findings but not particularly surprising.

However, to establish these things, they had to find gifted dropouts. And to find them, you have to have some sense of how many of them there are. The study's authors used data from the National Education Longitudinal Study begun in 1988. This tracked 8th graders through the next few years and is the most comprehensive data set available on who stayed in school and who did not (obviously not all dropouts could be found, but many could). The authors had to use some screen for giftedness, and so they chose a relatively broad one. Students were counted as gifted if they participated in their school gifted program, or took more than 3 advanced, enriched or accelerated classes. Obviously, this is not perfect. My first high school's advanced classes would hardly have required a genius IQ to do all right in, but this at least gave the authors some screen for kids being relatively bright.

The numbers? In the first part of the study, "Among 1285 students who completed the Second Follow-Up Dropout Questionnaire, 334 were identified as gifted." That gives us a rate of giftedness among dropouts of 26%. That's even higher than the oft-cited 20%!

But, of course, it's not quite that simple. We need some context here. What is the giftedness rate among the overall population using this definition? For the second part of the study, the authors used the full cohort of 8th graders who completed all the rounds of the longitudinal survey. Of 12,625 students, 3520 met the giftedness definition, or 28%.

In other words, what this survey reveals is that students identified as gifted (by a broad definition) and other students drop out at the same rate -- and indeed, the authors did find this explicitly as well. 5% of both the 12,625 total student sample and the 3520 gifted student sample dropped out.

So what does that mean? My personal definition of giftedness is not nearly so broad as to encompass a full quarter of students. I don't think most other people believe the definition should be so broad, either. When people say "up to 20% of high school dropouts test in the gifted range" we generally use that stat to imply that the gifted are over-represented in the dropout population. We don't actually know that. I would love to see a study of students with 150+ IQs, looking at their dropout rates. The other way of getting at this -- studying all dropouts, and seeing how many have 150+ IQs -- would probably reveal the obvious. It's a very small percentage, precisely because so few people have IQs that test so high.

So if I'm reading this all correctly, to get a rate of giftedness among dropouts of 20%, you simply have to set the definition of giftedness among the total student population at 20%. If you set the definition of giftedness at 10% among the general population, you'd probably get a rate of 10% among dropouts too. This may not go all the way to 1%, or .005%, though it might. Or there might be more of a bell-curve, with top 1%-ers being less likely to drop out, but the misunderstood, lone 200+ IQ kid in the 0.001% being more likely to do so. I just don't know. But there's no reason to believe that gifted students are over-represented among dropouts.

However, it is interesting to note that being relatively bright (for instance, in the top quartile of seeming academic potential) does not protect students from dropping out. The 20% stat is usually cited to counter the belief that the gifted are all academic superstars. Many are, but some aren't, and it's important to keep in mind when looking at the numbers that many people drop out who are quite capable of not only completing high school but going on to college and even more. This is a huge waste of human potential, whatever the numbers happen to be.


McSwain said...

The numbers here confuse me, but anecdotal evidence from my family (many highly gifted) and friends from my school days would tell me that gifted kids might just drop out at high rates. Several of the gifted folk I've known didn't fit well in academia, dropped out, and ended up self-educated and highly successful.