ERIC Identifier: ED409660
Publication Date: 1997-07-00
Author: Ford, Donna Y. - Thomas, Antoinette
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
FACTORS AFFECTING UNDERACHIEVEMENT
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
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
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
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
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.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PREVENTING AND REVERSING UNDERACHIEVEMENT
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
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.
1: CHECKLIST FOR IDENTIFYING INDICES OF UNDERACHIEVEMENT
AMONG GIFTED BLACK STUDENTS SOCIAL FACTORS
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
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
SCHOOL CULTURE/CLIMATE FACTORS
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
Little attention is given to multicultural education
Teachers and other school personnel lack substantive training in gifted
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
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,
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
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 ACHIEVEMENT BEHAVIORS
Student has low standardized
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
Note. From REVERSING UNDERACHIEVEMENT AMONG GIFTED BLACK STUDENTS: PROMISING
PRACTICES AND PROGRAMS by D. Y. Ford, 1996. Reprinted with permission of the
author. New York.
2: STRATEGIES TO ENHANCE ACHIEVEMENT AMONG GIFTED
MINORITY STUDENT GOAL/OBJECTIVE
To affirm the self-worth of students and convey the promise of greater
potential and success; to provide social and emotional support.
RECOMMENDED STRATEGIES: SUPPORTIVE
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.
RECOMMENDED STRATEGIES: INTRINSIC
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
8. Have nurturing, affirming classrooms.
To improve students' academic performance in
the specific area(s) of difficulty.
RECOMMENDED STRATEGIES: REMEDIAL
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
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