A Study of Achievement and Underachievement Among Gifted, Potentially Gifted, and Average African-American Students

Donna Y. Ford

This report presents results of a cross-sectional study consisting of interviews with 152 middle and high school (grades 6 to 9) African-American students in five mid-Atlantic school districts in 1995. In every school district that participated in the study, African-American students were under-represented in the gifted education programs. Forty-four students (29%) in the study were identified as gifted by their respective school districts.

Academically diverse (gifted, potentially gifted, and average) African-American students were surveyed regarding their perceptions of factors that negatively or positively affect their achievement. Nine variables were investigated, namely, racial/ethnic identity, test anxiety, attitudes toward school subjects, support for the achievement ideology, perceptions of the learning environment, as well as the influence of psychological, social (peer issues and societal injustices), and cultural/familial factors.

A multiple regression was used to identify underachieving students. Students whose current semester grade point average (GPA) was one or more standard deviations below the level predicted by their overall Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS, grade 4) score were defined as underachievers (n=62, 42%); those whose GPA was at or higher than the level predicted were defined as achievers (n=87, 58%). Thus, two in five students sampled were underachieving based on regression analysis. Half of the males in the sample (n=27) and 37% of females (n=35) were underachieving. Relative to grade level, there was one sixth grader who was underachieving (13%), 24 seventh graders (45%), 18 eighth graders (38%), and 19 ninth graders (48%) who were underachieving. Three students were not categorized relative to achievement status due to missing test scores.

Comparative results are based on a 3×2 model, with three academic groups (gifted, potentially gifted, and average students) and two achievement levels (achievers and underachievers). There were 17 gifted underachievers (11% of the sample), 27 gifted achievers (18%), 27 potentially gifted underachievers (18%), 40 potentially gifted achievers (27%), 18 average achievers (12%), and 20 average underachievers (13%). Almost 40% of gifted and potentially gifted students were underachievers, and about 50% of average students were underachieving.

Results indicate that the variables most effective as discriminating among the gifted, potentially gifted, and average achievers and underachievers were: (1) students’ attitudes toward reading, math, and science; (2) students’ perceptions of parental achievement orientation; and (3) students’ own achievement ideology.


Ford, D. Y. (1995). A Study of achievement and underachievement among gifted, potentially gifted, and average African-American students (Research Monograph 95128). Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

A Study of Achievement and Underachievement Among Gifted, Potentially Gifted, and Average African-American Students
Donna Y. Ford


  1. Since African-American students are underrepresented in gifted programs nationally, school districts should focus on both talent development and the nurturance of abilities.
  2. Identifying African-American students as gifted may be difficult due to their achievement test scores and underachievement in the classroom. Neither test scores nor teachers are able to represent the strengths of minority students without using multiple instruments and procedures.
  3. Socioemotional and psychological variables should be examined during the identification process, including the impact of racial identity and test anxiety on students’ performance, achievement, and motivation.
  4. Curricular modifications that are multicultural in nature increase the motivation and engagement of African-American students. This integration of multi-culturalism promotes self-understanding and self-appreciation.
  5. Schools that recruit and retain minority teachers who can serve as mentors, role models, and advocates for minority students provide an added support system for the underachieving African-American student.
  6. Counseling efforts may close the gap between the underachieving African-American students’ beliefs about achievement and their lack of performance.
  7. Home-student-school partnerships are essential for promoting academic achievement among African-American students.