'Gifted' classes produce few gains

Gifted students in special classes and magnet schools don’t learn more than students who just missed the cut-off for special programs, concludes a working paper (pdf) by the National Bureau of Economic Research. From Education Week:

The University of Houston researchers who conducted the study found that students in these programs were more likely than other students to do in-depth coursework with top teachers and high-performing peers. Yet students who barely met the 5th grade cutoff criteria to enter the gifted programs fared no better academically in 7th grade, after a year and a half in the program, than did similarly high-potential students who just missed qualifying for gifted identification.

“You’re getting these better teachers; you’re getting these higher-achieving students paired up with you,” said Scott A. Imberman, an economics professor

The large, southwestern district provides enrichment, rather than acceleration, to gifted students. That typically means “more detailed and in-depth course materials, taught by high-performing teachers, with other high-performing peers.”

Students qualified as gifted based on high grades, teacher recommendations or scoring above the 80th percentile on a standardized exam.  However, students with average academic performance — as low as the 45th percentile in reading and the 55th percentile in math — could qualify if they had disabilities or limited English proficiency or if they lived in poverty.  About 20 percent of students were designated as gifted, an unusually high number.

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