A Child's Academic Success May Be Genetic

Children's chances of doing well in school may be based mostly on their DNA, new research found.

Researchers at the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin and King's College London found that genetics have a substantial influence on educational achievement. The study, published in Science of Learning on Tuesday, revealed this factor can influence kids from elementary school through the end of high school.

"Around two-thirds of individual differences in school achievement are explained by differences in children's DNA," Margherita Malanchini, a psychology postdoctoral fellow at the Population Research Center at UT Austin, said in a statement. "But less is known about how these factors contribute to an individual's academic success over time."

To determine how much genetics can affect academics, the researchers analyzed 6,000 pairs of twins' test scores for their entire education up until they finished high school. The twins were participants in the Twins Early Development Study, which looks at how genes and environment can influence a person's life. Their analysis found that academic success is very consistent, so kids that do well in elementary school often continue to do well through high school.

About 70 percent of this success could be explained by genetics, and around 25 percent was explained by the twins' shared environment. The non-shared environment, like different teachers or friends, explained the remaining 5 percent. Even when the researchers controlled for intelligence, genetics still contributed to 60 percent of a child's chance of academic success, which means it's not just that someone is born smart.

"Academic achievement is driven by a range of cognitive and noncognitive traits," Malanchini said. "Previously, studies have linked it to personality, behavioral problems, motivation, health and many other factors that are partly heritable."

Atlanta School Bus
An Atlanta Public Schools bus is parked at Dobbs Elementary School in Atlanta. Even when the researchers controlled for intelligence, genetics still contributed to 60 percent of a child’s chance of academic success. TAMI CHAPPELL/REUTERS

Throughout these children's schooling careers, when grades did drop, it was explained largely by nonshared environmental factors. This means that parents and education professionals can focus on identifying children who may need interventions before their grades begin to drop and finding out what problems in their life might be causing that change. The scientists warn that the problems are likely to remain throughout their schooling without intervention.

A study in July found that a test could determine a child's chance of success, not just in education, but in career advancement and wealth, too. Additionally, the scientists found that the mother's genetics could be an even bigger indicator of a child's success than their own genetic results.