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What Boosts Human Capital Development?

What a talent search process across two decades teaches about growing talent.

Talent or human capital development is important as it contributes to individual development and fulfillment, educational and occupational achievement, and broader innovation. However, there is very little known about how to boost talent development.

With Jeff Allen of ACT, we recently conducted a study of nearly half a million gifted students published in Gifted Child Quarterly titled “What boosts talent development? Examining predictors of academic growth in secondary school among academically advanced youth across 21 years.”

We attempted to uncover which factors may best promote the academic growth of gifted students, and also figure out how academic growth has trended across the last two decades for different subgroups of gifted students.

In the U.S., the 7th-grade talent search process involves highly gifted students taking the ACT or SAT in the 7th grade to determine whether they score at a certain level to qualify for participation in advanced programming at major centers across the U.S at universities like Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and Duke. In this study, we had access to data for all students who took the ACT test in the 7th grade, not just from an individual center, but across all of them.

We exploited a unique leverage point—a somewhat naturally occurring sequence across the last two decades—to investigate human capital development: It turns out that many students who took the ACT in the 7th grade as part of a talent search take it again in 11th or 12th grade for college admissions. This allowed us to examine how much scores for these gifted students have improved from the 7th grade to high school and for which groups and whether this has stayed the same or changed over time.

As our abstract reads: “We examined 482,418 students who took the ACT in the seventh grade and again in high school, taking an exploratory analytic approach to examine academic growth trends from 1996 to 2017. Predictors included sociodemographics, interests, high school (HS) characteristics, HS coursework and GPA, and extracurriculars, which explained 25% of the variance in academic growth. Overall, growth improved from 2005 to 2017, but growth for low-income and Hispanic students was stagnant. Catholic and private school students had the highest growth; homeschooled and high-poverty public school students had the lowest. High growth was associated with STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) elective HS courses and advanced AP, accelerated, and honors courses. Students with investigative and conventional interests had higher growth. Some extracurriculars had significant relationships with academic growth, though the effects were small.”

Our study provides many possible hints about how talent development might be fruitfully boosted. High academic growth was associated with taking more STEM elective high school courses, taking more advanced (e.g., AP, accelerated, and honors) courses, higher high school grades, participation in instrumental music and community service organizations, and having investigative and conventional types of interests.

The study also revealed gaps in academic growth across demographic and school groups, suggesting that some groups of students are not having their talent developed as much as they could. African American, Hispanic, low-income, and female students had lower growth. Students from Catholic and private schools showed higher growth than public and homeschooled students. Students from rural schools showed lower growth than students from suburban and urban schools.


Wai, J., & Allen, J. (2019). What boosts talent development? Examining predictors of academic growth in secondary school among academically advanced youth across 21 years. Gifted Child Quarterly, 63, 253-272.