Millions of U.S. Students Underchallenged in School

Thursday, August 18, 2016

For Immediate Release

Katy Munger
(919) 668-9153

DURHAM, NC—Millions of U.S. students are being under-challenged by an American educational system that overemphasizes age-based curriculum, according to a new research study co-authored by Matt Makel, Director of Research at the Duke University Talent Identification Program (Duke TIP).

Specifically, the study found very large percentages of U.S. students are performing above grade level, with many of them performing well above grade level—indicating that the U.S. likely wastes tens of billions of dollars each year in efforts to teach students content they already know. 

Depending on the state-specific data examined, the study’s researchers estimate that 20-40% of elementary and middle school students perform at least one grade level above their current grade in reading, with 11-30% scoring at least one grade level above in math. Large percentages of these students are performing well above grade level: the study estimates that 8-10% of Grade 4 students perform at the Grade 8 level in reading/English/language arts, with 2-5% scoring at similar levels in math.

Together, these percentages represent staggeringly large numbers of students. For example, in a single recent year, there were more students in the U.S. already working four years above grade level than the entire population of Rhode Island. In short, millions of American K-12 students are currently performing above grade level and are not being appropriately challenged, putting their intellectual development at risk.

The implications of the study’s results are profound. They indicate that current federal and state education policies focusing on grade-level proficiency are irrelevant for a huge number of American students. They also suggest that the current U.S. K-12 system organizing primarily around age-based grade levels needs serious rethinking. The authors are calling for state districts and schools to report their percentages of above-grade-level performers and to include starting scores in their measurements of educational growth, but they caution that this is not enough to address the problem.

“Identifying the millions of students whose academic talent has largely been invisible is essential, but it is only a first step,” Makel explains. “New policies need to be developed to make sure that every student has the opportunity to learn something new every day, no matter where they start. Subject-specific acceleration, curricular compacting, and many other interventions can help match students with the learning environment they need to be appropriately challenged.”

The authors looked at both nationwide and state-specific testing data. The policy brief, published by the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy, is titled “How Can So Many Students Be Invisible? Large Percentages of American Students Perform Above Grade Level.” It is co-authored by Peters, Matthew C. Makel of Duke University, Michael S. Matthews of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Karen Rambo-Hernandez of West Virginia University and Jonathan A. Plucker of Johns Hopkins University.

For more information, you can download a PDF of the full study, contact Duke TIP’s Director of Research Matt Makel at, or contact study co-author Jonathan Plucker of Johns Hopkins University at


About TIP: Duke University Talent Identification Program (Duke TIP) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving academically talented youth. As a global leader in gifted education, Duke TIP works with students, families, and educators to identify, recognize, challenge, engage, and support gifted youth in reaching their highest potential. More than 2.8 million students have benefited from TIP programs and resources since 1980. TIP’s talent identification, academic, and research programs now serve as worldwide models for the education of gifted students.