ERIC Identifier: ED409660
Publication Date: 1997-07-00
Author: Ford, Donna Y. - Thomas, Antoinette
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education Reston VA.

Underachievement among Gifted Minority Students: Problems and Promises. ERIC Digest E544.

The majority of articles and studies on gifted minority students have focused on issues of identification, primarily because some minority groups of gifted learners, particularly Black, Hispanic American, and Native American, have been underrepresented in gifted programs. These students may be underrepresented by as much as 30 to 70%, with an average of 50% (Ross, et al., 1993).While there is a clear need to increase the participation of minority students in gifted education programs, there is an equally important need to focus on issues of achievement and underachievement. This digest discusses factors affecting the achievement of gifted minority students, with particular attention to Black students.Problems associated with underachievement definitions and the influence of social, cultural, and psychological factors on student achievement are discussed. Suggestions and recommendations for reversing underachievement among gifted minority students are presented.


There is little consensus on how best to define underachievement, particularly among gifted students. One problem rests in the definition of giftedness; another problem rests in measurement. For example, each district has its own definition of giftedness, although most rely almost exclusively on teacher recommendation, and an intelligence or achievement test score (Coleman, Gallagher, & Foster, 1994). A related issue concerns one's definition of underachievement. In general, underachievement is defined as a discrepancy between ability and performance. Yet, few studies have used the same definition of underachievement. After reviewing more than 100 publications on underachievement, Ford (1996) noted that this can be measured using any number of criteria and instruments. School A may use an intelligence and an achievement test, school B may use an achievement test and grade point average, and school C may use an aptitude test and GPA. In these examples, the schools have adopted a psychometric definition of underachievement, which is problematic because minority students tend not to score well on standardized tests.

Qualitative or subjective factors can also be used to identify underachievement. School D may rely on teacher expectations to determine who is underachieving. Thus, if a teacher believes that Marcus is not performing to his potential and that he can do better, Marcus would be considered an underachiever. Teachers must consider several questions regarding the nature and extent of students' underachievement: (a) Is underachievement chronic, situational, or temporary? (b) Is underachievement subject specific or general? (c) What factors are contributing to underachievement (e.g., poor intrinsic motivation, poor academic self-esteem, negative peer pressures, lack of family involvement, poor student-teacher relationships, low teacher expectations)?

The lack of consensus on how best to define and measure underachievement--qualitative or quantitative, amount of discrepancy, nature and extent--all make it difficult to estimate the number of gifted students who are underachieving. Whitmore (1980) estimated that at least 20% of gifted students underachieve, while the U.S. Commission on Excellence in Education (1983) estimated 50%. Ford (1995) found that 46% of the gifted Black students surveyed were underachieving.


A number of factors must be examined to understand how and why gifted minority students underachieve. Sociopsychological, family, and school factors should all be considered. Table 1 presents an initial checklist that can be used to explore factors contributing to underachievement.

1. Sociopsychological Factors and Underachievement

Poor self-esteem and low academic and social self-concepts contribute significantly to poor student achievement. Ford, Harris, and Schuerger (1993) maintained that racial identity must also be explored with gifted minority students. How do these students feel about their racial/ethnic heritage? Do they have a strong, positive racial identity? Minority students who do not hold positive racial identities may be especially vulnerable to negative peer pressures; they may also equate achievement with "acting white" or "selling out" (Fordham, 1988), which contributes to low effort and, thus, low achievement. Specifically, Lindstrom and Van Sant (1986) reported that many gifted minority students must choose between need for achievement and need for affiliation. These students often succumb to negative social pressures so that need for affiliation outweighs need for achievement.

An external locus of control also hinders minority students' achievement. Students who attribute their outcomes to external factors, such as discrimination, may put forth less effort than those who attribute outcomes to internal factors, such as effort and ability (Ford, 1996; Fordham, 1988). Minority students who do not believe in the achievement ideology, who believe that glass ceilings and injustices will hinder their achievement, are not likely to work to their potential in school.

2. Family-Related Factors and Underachievement

Few studies have explored the influence of family variables on the achievement of gifted minority students. VanTassel-Baska (1989) focused on the role of families in the lives of 15 low socioeconomic status (SES) gifted students, eight of whom were Black, and many living in single-parent families. Her findings reveal that low SES Black families held high expectations, aspirations, and standards for their children, as well as positive achievement orientations. The Black parents sought to promote self-competence and independence in their children. Parents were described as watchful of their children, hyperaware of children's accomplishments, and actively involved in developing their abilities.

Prom-Jackson, Johnson, and Wallace (1987) conducted a study of minority graduates of A Better Chance, Inc. (ABC), a nonprofit educational organization that identifies academically gifted low SES minority students as possible candidates for college preparatory secondary schools. It was concluded that low SES gifted minority students had parents of all educational levels. Parental educational level was not a good predictor of minority students' academic performance. The findings on parental beliefs and values suggested that in spite of social hardships and barriers, which often limit achievement and social advancement, this group of parents must have had high expectations of their children in order to have encouraged them to pursue high levels of education and challenging careers.

In a seminal study, Clark (1983) examined low SES Black students' achievement and underachievement in their family context. Achieving Black students had parents who (a) were assertive in their parent involvement efforts; (b) kept abreast of their children's school progress; (c) were optimistic and tended to perceive themselves as having effective coping mechanisms and strategies; (d) set high and realistic expectations for their children; (e) held positive achievement orientations and supported tenets of the achievement ideology; (f) set clear, explicit achievement-oriented norms; (g) established clear, specific role boundaries; (h) deliberately engaged in experiences and behaviors designed to promote achievement; and (i) had positive parent-child relations characterized by nurturance, support, respect, trust, and open communication. Conversely, underachieving Black students had parents who (a) were less optimistic and expressed feelings of helplessness and hopelessness; (b) were less assertive and involved in their children's education; (c) set unrealistic and unclear expectations for their children; and (d) were less confident in terms of their parenting skills. Ford (1993) also found that gifted Black achievers reported more positive values and expectations among their parents regarding their participation in the gifted program, doing well, and exerting effort.

3. School-Related Factors and Underachievement

Numerous factors in schools can influence the achievement of gifted minority students. For example, in a study of gifted Black achievers and underachievers (Ford, 1995), underachievers reported (a) less positive teacher-student relations, (b) having too little time to understand the material, (c) a less supportive classroom climate, and (d) being unmotivated and disinterested in school. Underachievers also expressed more concerns regarding the lack of attention to multicultural education in their classes, which contributed to their lack of interest in school.

Numerous studies indicate that teacher expectations have a powerful impact on student achievement (e.g., Good, 1981). Using teachers to define underachievement presents some problems if teachers lack objectivity or training in gifted education and multicultural education. Teachers tend to have lower expectations for minority and low income students than for other students (Hale-Benson, 1986). Consequently, minority students may not be identified as either gifted or underachieving. Low teacher expectations for minority students may relate to a lack of teacher training in both multicultural and gifted education. Such unprepared teachers are less likely to refer minority students for gifted education services or to complete checklists favorably. When students do not have access to appropriate education, they have difficulty reaching their potential. The result may be underachievement due to disinterest, frustration, and lack of challenge.

Some researchers have noted how minority students' learning styles may contribute to underachievement. Specifically, research indicates that Black students tend to be field-dependent, visual, and concrete learners (Hale-Benson, 1986), whereas schools teach more often in verbal, abstract, and decontextualized ways. Thus, mismatch between learning styles and teaching styles can result in confusion, frustration, and underachievement for gifted minority students.

Excessive use of competition can also hinder students' achievement, damaging academic motivation and educational engagement. Given the more social and less competitive nature of minority students (e.g., Hale-Benson, 1986), competition can heighten students' anxieties, lower their achievement motivation, and lower their academic and social self-concepts.


Student underachievement is a complex and persistent problem. Reversing underachievement among gifted minority students requires intensive efforts on the part of teachers and counselors, as well as a partnership with parents and students. For optimal effects, teachers and counselors must tailor interventions to students' needs. Interventions for gifted minority students must consider social-psychological, family, peer, and school factors. Interventions must (a) ensure that definitions of underachievement are both qualitative and quantitative, and that measures are valid and reliable; (b) enhance self-perceptions, self-esteem, self-concept (academic and social), and racial identity; (c) improve students' skills in studying, time management, organization, and taking tests; (d) involve family members as partners in the educational process; and (e) address school-related factors, including providing teachers and counselors with gifted and multicultural training to meet both the academic and affective needs of gifted minority students. This training should include strategies for improving student-teacher relations, teacher expectations, and the classroom climate. Just as important, school-related interventions must focus on curricular and instructional modifications so that optimal learning and engagement are possible.

To prevent or reverse underachievement, schools will need to provide supportive strategies, intrinsic strategies, and remedial strategies. The strategies include accommodations to students' learning styles, focusing on students' interests, and affirming students as individuals with special needs and concerns. Suggested strategies appear in Table 2.


One of the biggest problems facing educators is that of student underachievement. Teachers and parents feel confusion, frustration, and disappointment when students fail to work to their potential. Gifted underachieving minority students perform poorly in school for many of the reasons that any student might. Yet, as described earlier, minority students may face additional barriers.

In short, underachievement is not only a problem, but a symptom of problems. To address this, educators must explore factors contributing to underachievement; these factors can be categorized as sociopsychological, family-related, peer-related, and school-related. One or all of these factors can hinder student achievement. Teachers, counselors, and families must join in partnerships to best identify and serve gifted underachieving minority students.



Student's primary social group is outside of the school or gifted program

Student participates in little or no extracurricular activities

Student socializes with delinquents and/or students who have a poor achievement orientation

Student's need for peer acceptance and relations outweighs his or her academic concerns about school and achievement

Student lives in one or more risk factors (e.g., poverty, single-parent family, poorly educated parent(s), etc.)


Student's home life is stressful

Low parental educational level

Student has one parent in the home

Student has relatives who have dropped out of school

Student has little parental/family supervision; poor family relations

Parental expectations for student are too low or unrealistic

Low socioeconomic status

Communication between home and school is poor


Teachers and school personnel hold low expectations of minority students

Morale among teachers, school personnel, and/or students is low

Classroom environment is unfriendly or hostile

Student feels alienated and isolated from teacher(s)

Student feels alienated and isolated from classmates

Gifted program lacks cultural and racial diversity relative to students

Teaching, administrative staff, and other school personnel lack racial and cultural diversity

Little attention is given to multicultural education

Teachers and other school personnel lack substantive training in gifted education

Teachers and other school personnel lack substantive training in multicultural and urban education

Minority students are underrepresented in the gifted program and services


Student motivation is consistently low

Student has negative attitude toward school

Student cannot tolerate structured and/or passive activities

Student relates poorly to authority or adult figures (e.g., teachers, parents, administrators)

Student has experienced emotional trauma (on more than one occasion, consistently, or frequently)

Student has low self-esteem

Student has low academic and/or social self-concepts

Student has poor racial identity

Student has health or medical problems

Student attributes failure to lack of ability; attributes success to luck or easy task

Student consistently seeks immediate gratification

Student's learning style preferences are inconsistent with teaching styles

Student suffers from test or evaluative anxiety

Student has a learning disability


Student has low standardized test scores

Student has low grades or grade point average

Student exerts little effort on school tasks

Student avoids challenging work

Student bores easily; dislikes drill work and rote practices

Student disrupts the classroom

Student procrastinates on school assignments

Student has poor study and/or test taking skills

Student resists participating in gifted program and services

Student has been suspended and/or expelled

Student has been truant or does not go to classes




To affirm the self-worth of students and convey the promise of greater potential and success; to provide social and emotional support.


1. Provide opportunities for students to discuss concerns with teachers and counselors;

2. Address issues of motivation, self-perception and self-efficacy;

3. Accommodate learning styles;

4. Modify teaching styles (e.g., abstract, concrete, visual, auditory);

5. Use mastery learning;

6. Decrease competitive, norm-referenced environments; use cooperative learning and group work;

7. Use positive reinforcement and praise;

8. Seek affective and student-centered classrooms;

9. Set high expectations of students;

10. Use multicultural education and counseling techniques and strategies;

11. Involve mentors and role models;

12. Involve family members in substantive ways.


To help students develop internal motivation; to increase academic engagement and self-efficacy.


1. Provide constructive and consistent feedback;

2. Give choices, focus on interests;

3. Vary teaching styles to accommodate learning styles;

4. Provide for active and experiential learning (e.g., role plays, simulations, case studies, projects, internships);

5. Use bibliotherapy and biographies;

6. Use mentorships and role models;

7. Adopt an education that is multicultural--culturally relevant and personally meaningful; an education that provides insight and self-understanding;

8. Have nurturing, affirming classrooms.


To improve students' academic performance in the specific area(s) of difficulty.


1. Implement academic counseling (e.g., tutoring, study skills, test-taking skills);

2. Teach time management and organization;

3. Use individual and small group instruction;

4. Use learning contracts, learning journals.

Note. Adapted from REVERSING UNDERACHIEVEMENT AMONG GIFTED BLACK STUDENTS: PROMISING PRACTICES AND PROGRAMS by D.Y. Ford, 1996. New York: Teachers College Press. Reprinted with permission of the author.



Coleman, M. R., Gallagher, J. J., & Foster, A. (1994). UPDATED REPORT ON STATE POLICES RELATED TO THE IDENTIFICATION OF GIFTED STUDENTS. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gifted Education Policy Studies Program.

Ford, D. Y. (1993). Black students' achievement orientation as a function of perceived family achievement orientation and demographic variables. JOURNAL OF NEGRO EDUCATION, 62(1), 47-66.

Ford, D. Y. (1995). A STUDY OF ACHIEVEMENT AND UNDERACHIEVEMENT AMONG GIFTED, POTENTIALLY GIFTED, AND REGULAR EDUCATION BLACK STUDENTS. Storrs, CT: The University of Connecticut, National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.


Ford, D. Y., Harris III, J. J., & Schuerger, J. M. (1993). Racial identity development among gifted Black students: Counseling issues and concerns. JOURNAL OF COUNSELING AND DEVELOPMENT, 71(4), 409-417.

Fordham, S. (1988). Racelessness as a strategy in Black students' school success: Pragmatic strategy or pyrrhic victory? HARVARD EDUCATIONAL REVIEW, 58(1), 54-84. Good, T. L. (1981). Teacher expectations and student perceptions: A decade of research. EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP, 38(5), 415-421.

Hale-Benson, J. (1986). BLACK CHILDREN: THEIR ROOTS, CULTURE, AND LEARNING STYLES (2nd ed.). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lindstrom, R. R., & Van Sant, S. (1986). Special issues in working with gifted minority adolescents. JOURNAL OF COUNSELING AND DEVELOPMENT, 64(9), 583-586.

Prom-Jackson, S., Johnson, S. T., & Wallace, M. B. (1987). Home environment, talented minority youth, and school achievement. JOURNAL OF NEGRO EDUCATION, 56(1), 111-121.

Ross, P. (1993). NATIONAL EXCELLENCE: A CASE FOR DEVELOPING AMERICA'S TALENT. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement (ED), Programs for the Improvement of Practice.

Shade, B. J. (1994). Understanding the African American learner. In E. R. Hollins, J. E. King, & W. C. Hayman (Eds.), TEACHING DIVERSE POPULATIONS: FORMULATING A KNOWLEDGE BASE (pp. 175-189). New York: State University of New York Press.

U. S. Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). A NATION AT RISK. Washington, DC: author.

VanTassel-Baska, J. (1989). The role of the family in the success of disadvantaged gifted learners. JOURNAL FOR THE EDUCATION OF THE GIFTED, 13(1), 22-36.

Whitmore, J. R. (1980). GIFTEDNESS, CONFLICT, AND UNDERACHIEVEMENT. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

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