[personal profile] philobiblius
This is one of a series of pieces from the past that capture the state of the present all too well.

by Milton Kornrich, in Underachievement, which he edited in 1965.

One might suppose that a definition of academic underachievement is a simple matter. After all, intuitively, does not the term directly suggest that a student is functioning less well than he or she could? But what is the meaning of "less well" and "could?" Is it less well in terms of a standard established by the student ("I think I could do better"); by the student's parents ("We know he could do better"); by the student's teacher ("He has more ability than he shows"); or by an objective intelligence or aptitude test which predicts a certain level of performance? Some focus on the imperfectness of this prediction: "Underachievement and overachievement are concepts which demonstrate the inability to predict performance accurately due to the influence of factors other than general ability or past record." (Carlson and Fullmer, 1959) Finally, if the researcher decides how "less well" is to be determined, what techniques will be used to measure it?

There are numerous related problems that only a more ambitious paper (i.e. Davis, 1959; Farquhar) would review. The purpose of this brief communication is to stimulate the reader to consider and evaluate a sample of definitions, and to emphasize, perhaps unnecessarily, that the multitudinous definitions reflect our insufficient comprehension of a most significant and obviously highly overdetermined phenomenon.


The following definitions of an underachiever are similar in that they respond to discrepancies between actual and predicted performance, but they vary in precision. Additionally, they differ with respect to characteristics of the students (e.g. grade level), test(s) from which predictions of achievement are made, and measure of academic achievement (average of all grades or achievement test scores).

For the purpose of this study, a gifted underachiever was defined as an eighth-grade pupil whose scores on the California Mental Maturity Test placed him in the top ten per cent of his class and whose grade point average for the eighth grade fell at least one decile below his expected performance level. (Ohlsen and Proff, 1960)

Initially, 102 entering tenth-grade underachievers were identified - students with I.Q.'s of 120 or higher (on two intelligence tests - CTMM, Pintner or Henmon-Nelson) and ninth year grade averages below 80 per cent. (Goldberg, 1959)

We may call gifted children (I.Q. 130 or above) underachievers when they fall in the middle third in scholastic achievement in grades and severe underachievers when they fall in the lowest third. (Gowan, 1957)

A student was designated as an underachiever if his percentile rank based on grades was twenty-five or more points below his percentile rank on the Differential Aptitude Test. (Students had been administered the Verbal and Abstract Reasoning subtests of the DAT.) (Baymur and Patterson, 1960)

The sample was divided into two groups, Achievers and Underachievers. This classification was based upon the extent to which the student achieved or failed to achieve a first semester grade point average (GPA) concordant with his aptitude test score (SAT total score). Specifically, the correlation between SAT total score and GPA was computed for the entire freshman class. This proved to be .39 (p < .01). By regression analysis, estimates for GPA were calculated for each level of scholastic aptitude (SAT total score) [GPA = .002566 (SAT total score) + .308.] All subjects in the experimental populations whose actual GPA fell below one-half of the standard error of estimate of GPA predicted by the regression formula were classified as underachievers. All others were classified as achievers. (Borislaw, 1962)

In establishing a range for detecting underachievers, minus one standard deviation from the mean, computed by comparing I.Q. and achievement score, appears to be a feasible operational line of demarcation. (Fliegler, 1957)

Specifically, a child qualified for inclusion in this study if he was in roughly the top 10 percent of the general population in measured ability (CTMM) ... It had been previously decided that those children who achieved a grade point average of 3.0 or higher would be categorized as achievers, while those whose grade point average was 2.8 or below would be classified as underachievers. Selection of these particular points to designate achievement or underachievement is not as arbitrary as it may seem. There would be little argument from most sources that an individual with a level of general ability placing him in the top 10 per cent of the general population is capable of attaining a 3.0 (B) average in academic work. There would likewise be little argument that an average in the C range (2.0-2.9) was below the level of work which might be expected of an individual whose ability placed him in the upper 10 per cent with regard to intelligence. (Shaw, 1961)



A definition that is rather broad and lacking in precision but which more than compensates for it in humor is offered by Russell: "In a very general sense, the 'underachiever' is the person who performs markedly below his capacities to learn, to make applications of learning, and to complete tasks. Speaking figuratively, he is the person who sits on his potential, resisting various motivational procedures to get him off his potential, and possibly needing an adroitly directed kick in that same potential." (Russell, 1958). The humor in Russell's definition appears to be the only indirect reference to the impatience and anger that the underachiever can arouse in us. Often, the underachiever's passive way of coping with hostility is stressed. If underachievement is a highly active* maneuver that indeed achieves something, and I believe it surely does, it would be fruitful for some investigator to describe the underachiever's impact on peers, parents, and teachers.

Newman's definition is thoughtful and novel: "It is our conclusion that a student's own sense of underachievement and voluntary participation in a project such as ours are the essential criteria for the identification and selection of underachievers. We would estimate that 25 per cent of Hofstra (University) students would meet such criteria. (Newman, undated).

Only recently have some investigators (e.g. Davis, 1959; Farquhar; Raph and Tannenbaum, 1961; Thordike, 1963) critically examined the voluminous underachievement literature to account for inconsistent findings, to suggest more sophisticated methodology, or even to challenge the concept of underachievement (Kowitz, 1965; Schwitzgebel, 1965). Perhaps, in Professor Thorndike's words, this effort "Will lead to fewer and better publications in the future." (Thorndike, 1963). It may eventually lead to fewer, less arbitrary definitions of underachievement.

(references to specifics available, but the fingers got tired)

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