Which Kids are Most Likely to Succeed in School? Scientists Say Genes Offer a Clue

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Many factors boost a child's chance of success in school — like having wealthy parents who can afford tutors. But recent research has raised another possibility — one that is discomforting to many — the idea that scientists might someday be able to spot the genetic markers associated with academic performance.

To do this, researchers are turning to a relatively new genetic approach called the polygenic score, which assesses a person’s likelihood for a specific future based on a combination of genetic variables. It’s a research technique that some scientists are using to assess obesity or cancer risk, for instance. Now, researchers are exploring this approach in non-medical contexts, like academic or athletic success.

The scientists studying genetic markers in education are trying to untangle how nature and nurture together explain school performance. In principle, genetic screening might enable teachers to tailor their approach to groups of students. Educators might then more effectively instruct kids together in one classroom, rather than separating students into accelerated and low-level courses, which can deprive Black and brown children and children from low-income families of academic opportunities.

But some researchers fear this gene screening work could be misapplied and used to further racist or eugenic thinking, even though race is a social, not a genetic, classification. There’s an ugly history of proponents of eugenics, who believe in reshaping humanity by breeding “superior traits” and removing “inferior traits,” justifying their thinking with genetics. And there are debunked racist theories that have endeavored to falsely connect race and intelligence.

For now, the science is almost entirely based on data collected from people with European ancestry, which limits the conclusions that can be drawn from it, so researchers feel that they’ve at least temporarily sidestepped the issue.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worried about it — and about the other ways this research could exacerbate inequities in education. Screening is expensive, for instance, increasing the odds that privileged students will qualify for extra enrichment or support before their less privileged peers.

Indeed, the idea of predicting students’ academic performance based on their genes comes with such a raft of ethical questions and unknowns that scientists in the field are urging caution. “Polygenic scores are a potentially useful new scientific tool. At the same time, there are clear reasons to be concerned,” Stanford University social scientist Ben Domingue said. “We’re going to have the capacity, with a vial of spit, to be able to predict all these different things.”

Scientists and ethicists are also concerned about commercializing this work while the research is still evolving. Already, several companies sell reports to consumers that incorporate polygenic scores for health or various physical characteristics — despite the fact that the scores are not perfect forecasters of a person’s future.

Researchers in the field want to see more critical discussion of how their work could be applied in educational settings. “If we don’t pay attention now, systems will be created, constructed around us, responding to our genetic difference,” said Sophie von Stumm, a psychologist at the University of York, in the United Kingdom, who studies genetics and education. “It’s high time to have this discussion. Honestly, we’re late to the party.”

The polygenic score that could help predict academic performance aims to assess genetic markers related to educational attainment. In other words, it combines hundreds of common genetic variants that are linked to the number of years a person stays in school. In 2016, this score could explain about 5 percent of the variation in the level of education completed.

In 2018, researchers studied data from more than a million people across countries and found they could strengthen the polygenic score to explain 11 percent of the variation in educational attainment. That value puts the score on par with factors like a mother’s level of education attainment, which explains 15 percent of variation, and household income, which explains about 7 percent.

“There are genes that affect educational attainment — that is for certain now,” said Aysu Okbay, an economist at Vrije Universiteit in the Netherlands who contributed to the 2016 and 2018 studies.

The score’s ability to explain variation in years of schooling could improve with more data. Rough estimates indicate about 80 percent of the variation in educational attainment comes from environmental factors — the rest is genetic. With enough data, some scientists believe, the polygenic score could get close to explaining 20 percent of the difference in people’s level of education.

If so, the score would be an incredibly powerful single factor for making predictions about an individual’s academic future — even though the combined environmental variables still eclipse the role of genes. “It’s really not a puny predictor at this point,” Domingue said.

In February, Domingue and his colleagues found that the polygenic score could help identify which groups of high schoolers had been placed into advanced math classes. The score could also point to students most likely to stick with advanced math courses across all four years of high school.

But polygenic scores also come laced with caveats. So many, in fact, that Okbay and her colleagues published a massive list of public FAQs — including how the study was designed and whether the research could lead to stigmatization of people with certain genes — to help readers interpret their research.