Underachievement Among Gifted Minority Students: Problems and Promises

The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
E-mail: webmaster@hoagiesgifted.org
Internet: http://eric.hoagiesgifted.org
ERIC EC Digest #E544
Authors: Donna Y. Ford and Antoinette Thomas
June 1997

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.

Defining Underachievement

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:

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.

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 to underachievement.

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.

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:

Conversely, underachieving Black students had parents who:
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.

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:

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.

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:

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.


Clark, R. (1983). Family Life and School Achievement: Why Poor Black Children Succeed and Fail. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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. (1996). Reversing Underachievement among Gifted Black Students: Promising Practices and Programs. New York: Teachers College Press.

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. et al. (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.

Donna Y. Ford, Ph.D., is Associate Professor, Curry School of Education, The University of Virginia. Antoinette Thomas, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor, Curry School of Education, The University of Virginia.


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 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.)

Family Factors
____ 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 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

Psychological/Individual Factors
____ 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 Achievement Behaviors
____ 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

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.


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
Provide opportunities for students to discuss concerns with teachers and counselors
Address issues of motivation, self-perception and self-efficacy
Accommodate learning styles
Modify teaching styles (e.g., abstract, concrete, visual, auditory)
Use mastery learning
Decrease competitive, norm-referenced environments
Use cooperative learning and group work
Use positive reinforcement and praise
Seek affective and student-centered classrooms
Set high expectations of students
Use multicultural education and counseling techniques and strategies
Involve mentors and role models
Involve family members in substantive ways

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

Recommended Strategies: Intrinsic
Provide constructive and consistent feedback
Give choices, focus on interests
Vary teaching styles to accommodate learning styles
Provide for active and experiential learning (e.g., role plays, simulations, case studies, projects, internships)
Use bibliotherapy and biographies
Use mentorships and role models
Adopt an education that is multicultural -- culturally relevant and personally meaningful, an education that provides insight and self-understanding
Have nurturing, affirming classrooms

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

Recommended Strategies: Remedial
Implement academic counseling (e.g., tutoring, study skills, test-taking skills)
Teach time management and organization
Use individual and small group instruction
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.

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ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under Contract No. RR93002005. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education.

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