Test Scores Are in the Genes

More than school or family environment, a child’s genetics influences high school exam results.

Dec 16, 2013
Jef Akst

FLICKR, ALBERTO GGenetics accounts for some 58 percent of the variation in test scores of more than 11,000 high school students taking the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education), a qualifying exam common in the U.K., according to a study published in PLOS ONE. In contrast, students’ school environment and home life accounted for only 36 percent of the variation.

“Some children find it easier to learn than others do, and I think it’s appetite as much as aptitude,” Robert Plomin, an expert in behavioral genetics who led the study at King’s College London told The Guardian. “There is a motivation, maybe because you like to do what you are good at.”

Plomin and his colleagues came to their conclusions by comparing the test scores of identical twins, who share 100 percent of their genes, to non-identical twins, who share only half their genetic material. The researchers suggest that because schools aim to give an equal education to all children, genetic differences impacting educational success are apparent. Of course, identifying specific genes that might play a role will be difficult, Plomin admitted.

Professor of science education Michael Reiss of the Institute of Education in London argued that knowing the role of genetics in academic is not particularly helpful. “Some people have to wear glasses because of genetic defects, and other people wear them for reasons that have nothing to do with genetics. As long as you are wearing glasses in school, it doesn’t matter at all,” he told The Guardian. “The genetics is utterly irrelevant.”

But Plomin disagreed, suggesting that genetic differences underlying variation in learning ability should be taken into account when designing school programs. “Education is still focused on a one-size-fits-all approach, and if genetics tells us anything it’s that children are different in how easily they learn and what they like to learn,” he told The Guardian. “Forcing them into this one academic approach is going to make some children confront failure a lot, and it doesn’t seem a wise approach.”