Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Are 20% of high school drop-outs gifted?

I spent a year as a fact-checker at USA Today before embarking on a freelance career. The experience of hunting down statistics gave me a statistic of my own: the majority of oft-cited stats are completely inaccurate. We do not know that telecommuters are 40% more productive than office-based workers. We do not know that 80% of 2-income couples have hired a cleaning service. We do not know that only 5% of Americans have a valid passport. Nor do we know that 95% of small businesses fail. Sometimes authors would make the stats sound more accurate by saying "According to the Census Bureau..." or some such, but when asked for back-up, it would always be a link to another news article or someone's website, never a primary source. And, indeed, when I called the primary source, I'd get a lot of loud sighing. In the internet age, incorrect stats get bandied about a lot.

Which leads me to the topic for today's post: the statistic that 20% of high school dropouts are gifted. This stat gets used in a variety of formats, which even at first blush makes it seem problematic. Some people twist it to say that 20% of gifted students drop out. Others say "up to 20% of high school dropouts test in the gifted range" (I think I've been guilty of this one). There are old studies that mention something around this number. The 1972 Marland Report to Congress seems to have used an 18% figure. In 1973, E. Nyquist presented a paper to the National Conference on Gifted saying 19% of New York high school dropouts were gifted. E. Robertson's 1991 article in Equity and Excellence on "Neglected Dropouts: The Gifted and Talented" said 18-25% of GT students drop out. From there things get more slippery. Some people cite one Solorzano 1983 stat saying the figure is up to 18%, but this turns out to be an article in US News & World Report, not an original study.

Of course, all of this hinges on there being a clear definition of giftedness. There isn't one. Some school districts in the past used a clear 130+ IQ definition, but this method has fallen out of favor in terms of more comprehensive assessments, achievement tests and the like. There isn't even a completely uniform definition of a dropout. Some people go back to school later in life -- or at least plan to, and hence wouldn't identify themselves as dropouts. Just on an extremely long sabbatical.

All that being said, I've spent the past few hours reading a late 2002 report from the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented about "Giftedness and High School Dropouts" that has a bit more rigor to it. The report was mainly designed to find out why gifted kids drop out. The answer is that they drop out for the same reasons other kids do. They don't like school, they're failing school, they're pregnant, they want to get a job, their parents didn't finish school, their home life doesn't particularly support learning, etc. The report found that "at risk" gifted kids -- those of lower socioeconomic status -- are more likely to drop out, as are gifted minority kids. These are unfortunate findings but not particularly surprising.

However, to establish these things, they had to find gifted dropouts. And to find them, you have to have some sense of how many of them there are. The study's authors used data from the National Education Longitudinal Study begun in 1988. This tracked 8th graders through the next few years and is the most comprehensive data set available on who stayed in school and who did not (obviously not all dropouts could be found, but many could). The authors had to use some screen for giftedness, and so they chose a relatively broad one. Students were counted as gifted if they participated in their school gifted program, or took more than 3 advanced, enriched or accelerated classes. Obviously, this is not perfect. My first high school's advanced classes would hardly have required a genius IQ to do all right in, but this at least gave the authors some screen for kids being relatively bright.

The numbers? In the first part of the study, "Among 1285 students who completed the Second Follow-Up Dropout Questionnaire, 334 were identified as gifted." That gives us a rate of giftedness among dropouts of 26%. That's even higher than the oft-cited 20%!

But, of course, it's not quite that simple. We need some context here. What is the giftedness rate among the overall population using this definition? For the second part of the study, the authors used the full cohort of 8th graders who completed all the rounds of the longitudinal survey. Of 12,625 students, 3520 met the giftedness definition, or 28%.

In other words, what this survey reveals is that students identified as gifted (by a broad definition) and other students drop out at the same rate -- and indeed, the authors did find this explicitly as well. 5% of both the 12,625 total student sample and the 3520 gifted student sample dropped out.

So what does that mean? My personal definition of giftedness is not nearly so broad as to encompass a full quarter of students. I don't think most other people believe the definition should be so broad, either. When people say "up to 20% of high school dropouts test in the gifted range" we generally use that stat to imply that the gifted are over-represented in the dropout population. We don't actually know that. I would love to see a study of students with 150+ IQs, looking at their dropout rates. The other way of getting at this -- studying all dropouts, and seeing how many have 150+ IQs -- would probably reveal the obvious. It's a very small percentage, precisely because so few people have IQs that test so high.

So if I'm reading this all correctly, to get a rate of giftedness among dropouts of 20%, you simply have to set the definition of giftedness among the total student population at 20%. If you set the definition of giftedness at 10% among the general population, you'd probably get a rate of 10% among dropouts too. This may not go all the way to 1%, or .005%, though it might. Or there might be more of a bell-curve, with top 1%-ers being less likely to drop out, but the misunderstood, lone 200+ IQ kid in the 0.001% being more likely to do so. I just don't know. But there's no reason to believe that gifted students are over-represented among dropouts.

However, it is interesting to note that being relatively bright (for instance, in the top quartile of seeming academic potential) does not protect students from dropping out. The 20% stat is usually cited to counter the belief that the gifted are all academic superstars. Many are, but some aren't, and it's important to keep in mind when looking at the numbers that many people drop out who are quite capable of not only completing high school but going on to college and even more. This is a huge waste of human potential, whatever the numbers happen to be.

23 comments:

  1. The numbers here confuse me, but anecdotal evidence from my family (many highly gifted) and friends from my school days would tell me that gifted kids might just drop out at high rates. Several of the gifted folk I've known didn't fit well in academia, dropped out, and ended up self-educated and highly successful.

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  2. Anonymous10:58 PM

    You also need a better definition of drop out. While you mentioned a number of reasons that individuals drop out, such as failing, pregnancy, or a home which does not encourage learning, there is also one other form of dropping out. There are those who drop out of HS so they can continue their education in an environment better suited to their needs. In my family's case one family member dropped out at 16 because she was failing and she went immediately to college. She never got a high school diploma. So is she a drop out? Does she count in the commonly cited stat of 20%? I would guess that there may be more profoundly gifted children who fit this definition of drop out.

    Either way the numbers are pretty useless. Giftedness is too loosely defined. Drop out seems to have no specific definition either. There is no way to differentiate between levels of giftedness. It would be very important to see if a highly gifted child was more likely to drop out then a moderately gifted child?

    I am very pleased that you did discuss the common problem of citing numbers. People seem to take what they read as gospel truth. Statistics can be very misleading and readers must understand the importance of taking things with a grain of salt.

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  3. I think several of my thoughts were mentioned by the other posters---some gifted kids leave school to go to college. Are they drop outs? I'm also thinking that many highly gifted kids don't go to traditions high schools. I've taught gifted kids for 25 years and have wondered where the profoundly gifted kids are--I've had many students who are very bright but wonder where the 160+ kids are. Are they dropouts?

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  4. On modern deviation-IQ scales, the 160+ kids are about 32/million, so about 1/720 gifted (130+) kids would be in the 160+ range. If you've had 25 years at 30 kids/year, there is a 35% chance you've never had a 160+ kid.

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  5. I'd love to take this discussion further to find out how many of our prisoners serving long term sentences would have been considered gifted in their childhood.

    I've known several of my childrens' friends who dropped out, got their GED, finished college in three years and are very successful in their field and I've known others who are just skating along in jobs well below their intelligence (continuing to underachieve).

    Recently, my daughter and I visited with her classmates and parents. We discussed being gifted and going into the real world. As a gifted parent and gifted educator, the discussions were eye-opening. I wrote an entry on my blog about it.

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  6. OK, Kevin you wowed me with the numbers. I have had several dozen kids who score in the 150-155 range over the years. I also think the WISC III tops out at 160 so maybe I wouldn't know how many really high kids I've had.

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  7. Anonymous4:24 PM

    I'm so glad you took this myth apart. If I had to guess I would guess that there are two trends that are masking each other.

    Whatever definition you use, there are the ones who are closer to the norm for their environments, who get an advantage from being 'smart.' There are also those who are 2E or just more extremely gifted, for whom the fit is most problematic and their lack of fit makes leaving school not only appealing, but perhaps rational as well.

    There are still folks out there who think that gifted kids 'have it made' and 'don't need adult attention.' I think that your reasonable interpretation, that gifted kids are dropping out at the same rate as everyone else, should throw cold water on that old myth.

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  8. Anonymous7:15 AM

    As the father of two profoundly gifted (180+) children, I am somewhat familiar with the rates at that end of the spectrum. Many young people in this range are not handled well by the public education system, and end up in college without a high school diploma. And most colleges have no other classification for them but "high school drop out." So it depends on what you want the numbers for. Do you want to know how many children fail high school, or do you want to know how many high schools fail our children?

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  9. Anonymous9:38 AM

    One thing I would caution everyone on is the use of any IQ scores above 160, as the new versions of the WISC and SBV rarely see scores even approaching 160, because they have been re-normed. I think using those high scores, which you could get on the very old SB-LM, are misleading and only confuse the issue. My son is profoundly gifted and scored at the 99.9th percentile on the SB5, which was a 145, 3 standard deviations above the mean. Using the old scores only confuses teachers and the general population. My son's needs are extreme, but if a teacher thinks you have to have a 180 IQ to have extreme needs, that's not true anymore.

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  10. It sems to me that schools provide such inadequate support to children in the gifted range that many of them drop out in favor of other means of education and development. I am aware of one family in which for the third generation the "children" have left high schoo by 15 or 16, to move on to college, med school, sucessful careers, etc.... I always joked that I was a drop out "for the other side." I left school half way through grade eight, traveled, started college at 16 after taking GED, graduated in three and a half years, worked for several years, and went on to law school and an LLM degree.

    The folks my heart aches for are those who are so turned off by school by the time they leave that a return to some form of formal educaiotn is not in the cards. I know some go on to have wonderful careers, but many have less than satusfying work lives- and I think- what an absolute waste of human capital!

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  11. Anonymous9:52 AM

    "The folks my heart aches for are those who are so turned off by school by the time they leave that a return to some form of formal educaiotn is not in the cards. I know some go on to have wonderful careers, but many have less than satusfying work lives- and I think- what an absolute waste of human capital!"

    Well Said by MIMJD!
    More than one of my children of 8 fit into this group. My 6 grown children hated their school and the way it was run. One son was identified as "gifted". He is 21, has no job. I'm so disappointed in the school, in myself, in his dad, and in him. He has so many ideas, good ideas, but no ambition to follow thru. He has the brains. Is very intelligent. I don't know how to help him. I've got 2 girls still at home, they are 13 and 11. I don't know what I can do to help him. No, he didn't drop out, but he went from our regular school to take this "opportunity school" 4 hours a day...when he went. Study and do the work at your own pace. He did 2 years work in 1 year and graduated a year early. Some other students took 3 years to complete 2 years. Anyway, he did graduate..in a sense, just not the traditional way. If he don't jump in soon, to the way of the world, he will have a very hard time finding a job. He quits early in every job for stupid reasons. Why is such an intelligent person being so stupid?

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  12. Margaret P9:09 AM

    This discussion seems to have missed the students who are physically in school but disengaged from learning. I myself was struggling to keep my mind alive in high school and felt that I should have been TEACHING many of my classes. My senior year, I was at my high school only long enough to get the required English and gym credits - a few hours a week - and taking a full load of college courses, where some of my classmates were graduate students. The local high schools which my children will attend have even less to offer.

    Why should gifted students be required to attend High School?

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  13. How nice to see that I'm not alone in being a high school dropout with multiple college degrees. I'm not even extremely gifted (I found my IQ results tucked away in my mom's dresser drawer once - just 135). College simply met my needs far better at age 16 than did high school life.

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  14. Anonymous3:50 AM

    I've met some dropouts, and continuation school grads who ended up graduating from some of the best schools in the nation. These are students who rank in the top .1% if not higher in college.

    From my experience, high school dropouts tend to be on either of the two extremes.

    I have a friend who only graduated from continuation school. From community college, he transferred to one of the most prestigious and well known universities in the nation with a 4.0--taking up to third semester Calculus and other difficult courses. He also worked his way through college, and was president of his school for two years.

    In the end, he graduated from one of the top law schools in the country. Right now, he is a star lawyer.

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  15. Just found this article. I'm so glad you are looking at this statistic more closely! I've taught gifted students for 15 years now, and I do see many of them at risk, but for the reasons you suggested: lack of parental support/guidance, low socio-economic, minority status, etc. Completely mirrored the regular students.

    However, I need to correct your definition of giftedness. While there are variations from program to program and state to state, typically those definitions are in the 2-5% of student population range. The top 2% would be a regular gifted program serving 130 and above IQ's, and the 2-5% would be more like a gifted/talented program that would include high achievers down in the 125 range. The 150 IQ's are an even smaller percentage, and are extremely rare. What is telling instead, is when looking at the IQ bell curve, with 100 being in the middle 70 and below at the lower end and 130 and above at the higher end, how much money is given to the lower end of the bell curve as opposed to the higher end. I believe we are the only developed country that neglects our higher IQ populations in such a way. Now THAT would be an interesting study!

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  16. Anonymous10:39 PM

    My little sister dropped out of high school at 16. Within five months she completed her GED while attending Community College. Two weeks ago she just completed UC Berkeley at the age of 19!

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  17. Anonymous9:21 PM

    My IQ was tested at 159. I tried to go to college twice, and dropped out both times. I was sooo bored. IN retrospect maybe I should've used my understanding to help my fellow students. I'd probably be earning more now if I had a degree now, but I'm doing alright. Regardless, I'm working a "meh" job. I have all these ideas which I feel are brilliant and would benefit society if I could develop them, but instead I have to spend my time earning a living doing work which uses my intelligence, but not fully. I still hope to "make something" of myself, but I do feel that our educational system failed me, and that both myself and our society have been deprived as a result.

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  18. Anonymous9:27 PM

    Continuing the previous post, my uncle dropped out of high school, then went on to get a Ph.D. in Physics and work at Fermilab. Last I hear he was delivering packages for UPS after several years of unemployment. I don't know his I.Q., but I do know that he's brilliant, and that our society doesn't suit itself to the needs of the very gifted. That's especially true for those of us who are highly intelligent and who are "free thinkers". The people who are highly intelligent but content with societal norms do fine in the world, but they aren't the most creative because they don't question things. Those of us who are highly intelligent and question are the most prone to innovate, but are also likely to question societal order to such a degree that we find ourselves in positions where our brilliance and creativity can't effectively benefit society...

    I think that educational reforms and grant money to encourage creativity among society's brightest could do a lot of good for us all, although that's unlikely to materialize in the short term.

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  19. Anonymous11:05 PM

    im 26. 135 IQ. dropped out of 8th grade. depression. 18 GED. 23 BA. 2 year working shit job. unable to get a top score on LSAT. enter law school at 25. do well. transfer to better law school.

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  20. Anonymous1:59 PM

    I was labeled as "Talented and Gifted" early in elementary school, had my own truancy officer in 7th grade as I only attended 9 days of that school year, attended an entire semester of my 8th grade year, spotty attendance in 9th, dropped out my 10th in that I did not return to high school, passed the GED test at 17, graduated summa cum laude and finishes grad school, became a teacher hoping to help the kids who slip through the cracks, quickly learned schools care about standardized testing and not individual students, now working in social services, IQ was tested at 147, but I put about as much value in that as I do my TAG label. Bottom line, there are many paths to education and the support, or lack thereof, makes a significant amount of difference in a child's life. I read an interesting stat that indicated just over half of high school grads cannot pass the GED test, and I think there's probably some accuracy to it based on my years as a high school teacher. Anyone who has taken Probability and Statistics knows stats are not reliable, but we sure love them!

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  21. Anonymous6:31 PM

    I've scored at 124, not a genius by any means, but above average i guess. I was told growing up that i was gifted and in the beginning, even took honors and AP courses. However i blame myself for dropping out of high school. Not my socio-economic background, negative events in my life, or any of that. Just poor choices on my part, and weak willpower on my part for giving into peer pressure to feel accepted. I did however receive my GED at the age of 22 (I'm 27 now) to enter into the Army, but haven't done anything beyond that to further my education or status. I guess the point I'm getting to is the spectrum is too broad to say up to 20% of dropouts are gifted, it may be more, or less. The reasons for dropping out are more numerous than grains of sand.

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  22. Anonymous9:08 AM

    I really appreciated your article. There are a lot of unsupported statements made about giftedness and it does not help a parent advocate for their child, so I am glad to hear your take on this.

    At the same time, I was surprised you listed 200+ IQ as the high end range. Maybe you have very smart friends and so your view of exceptional is skewed, or maybe you went to a very rigorous school where your smarter students were challenged and taken care of so that only the most profoundly gifted had true difficulty in the school system. ???

    In many places you can be in the regular ol' 'gifted' group and still the school is completely unable to meet your student's needs. That's where we live. And it's in a 'great' neighborhood full of parents who graduated from Harvard, MIT, RISD, USC etc.

    Just to clarify the numbers

    IQ tests are normed so that 100 is average.

    Moderately gifted 124/130+
    Highly gifted 133/138/145+
    Exceptionally gifted 145/160+
    Profoundly gifted 145/152/175/180+

    It is estimated that about 1 in 80 have a 136 iq, 1 in 1,100 have a 150, about 1 in 20,000 people (i'm rounding up here) have a 180 iq, while about 1 in 5 billion have a 200+ iq.

    On levels of giftedness, Hoagiesgifted.org notes,"...what does this level of giftedness imply? There is the numerical answer: a child of IQ 160 is as different from a moderately gifted child of 130, as that child is from an average child of 100. But IQ scores are no longer derived from a ratio, with the numerical difference between scores indicating the variation. Today's IQ tests score on a curve, so that the difference between 100 and 115 is far less than the difference between 130 and 145, and the difference between 130 and 145 is far less than the difference between 145 and 160, though the ranges appear similar numerically."

    Again, thanks for the article. I like to hear multiple view points.

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  23. Anonymous6:20 PM

    I'm in the two hundreds. Dropping out of school at fifteen to support my family financially was my only option. Sometimes when you're born a poor smoe, you also die a poor smoe.

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