Teachers and parents may one day be able to use a genetic test to predict whether or not a child will excel at or struggle with academics in the future, based on new research pioneered by scientists at King’s College London.
While the prospect may present a frightening vision of a future in which ability and potential will be determined by one’s genetic makeup, and indeed is tainted by a history of eugenics and racist science, the researchers say the tests will help identify, early on, the children who are at risk academically and help educators create special interventions for them.
Saskia Selzam, lead author of the study, explains more in the video above.
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“By using these polygenic scores, it is actually possible to identify those for example who are maybe at heightened risk for a learning disability, for example,” she said. “So imagine a scenario where we could use a polygenic score very early on to give us information about whether someone might have some learning problems later on.”
But other experts who have also mined genetic testing to predict behavioral outcomes warn that we have a long way to go before genetic testing can predict individual educational achievement, and that research is the genetic tool’s primary utility.
How genetic scoring tool works
Scientists use a special kind of DNA analysis called a genome-wide polygenic score. It aggregates the tiny effects of hundreds of thousands of genetic variants to create the scale that can predict academic achievement. In this case, the researchers from King’s College London borrowed the formula for a polygenic score that others had already used to predict academic attainment (the number of years of formal education a person completes).
They then applied the polygenic score to a population of 5,825 unrelated children to see if they could predict how those kids would score on tests.
The King’s College researchers looked back at students’ academic scores at ages 7, 12 and 16 and found that genes alone accounted for a growing variance in grades that grew as the kids got older. At age 7, genes accounted for about 3 percent of grade differences. By age 12, the number was up to about 5 percent. By 16 years old, genes explained about 9 percent of the difference in grades.
While 9 percent may not seem like much, past studies have linked gender to about 1 percent of the variance between boys’ and girls’ performance in math, while high scores of “grit,” or resilience, account for about 4 percent of educational achievement.
To put it in terms of grades, by age 16, kids with high polygenic scores had grades that, on average, ranged between As and Bs. Those with low polygenic scores tended to earn Bs and Cs. Finally, those with the highest scores were more than twice as likely to go to university compared to those with the lowest scores.
How close are we to using these tests in schools?
“We are at a tipping point for predicting individuals’ educational strengths and weaknesses from their DNA,” Professor Robert Plomin, senior author of the study, said in a statement about the research.
While Plomin’s statement and the results of his study might stir fears of self-fulfilling prophecies, or could even backfire (if you tell a child he’s smart, it may make him fearful and afraid to fail), Daniel Belsky, a professor at the Duke University School of Medicine, says we’re a long way from tests that can be used in schools and doctor’s offices to predict a child’s academic abilities. However, Belsky, who was not involved in Selzam’s study but has conducted his own on genetics and educational attainment, also points out that the time to discuss these issues is now — not when the tests finally do arrive.
“Findings from this study, along with others, suggest the possibility that we might someday have genetic tools that can predict important dimensions of children’s life outcomes,” said Belsky. “We should begin the conversation about whether we want such tools now, before more accurate genetic predictions become possible.”
Selzam is of a similar mind to Belsky on this issue. In the video above, she maintains that while these genetic analyses will continue to be useful research tools, policy makers and scientists would have to discuss how and when to deploy them, if at all, should a version of the test become available to the wider public.
The real point of these tests: social science research
But other scientists who research polygenic scores aren’t convinced about their utility as a tool to predict an individual person’s educational abilities or attainment. Daniel Benjamin, an associate professor at the Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California, who was part of the initial group of scientists who created the score Selzam used in her study, says their promise lies mostly in research.
“It’s definitely premature to start thinking about using it to tailor the educational experience,” said Benjamin. “But its predictive power is definitely big enough now to be useful for predicting differences in samples in scientific studies.”
Specifically, Benjamin believes that a more apt use of these genetic tests would be in social science research. Once scientists start using these tools to control for genetic factors, they’ll be able to more accurately estimate the positive or negative effects of experimental interventions like, say, free pre-school, on children. In other words, scientists will be able to more precisely estimate how much of a classroom’s achievement is due to class environment versus genetic predispositions.
“Knowing more about which genetic factors matter and being able to incorporate them into studies will help us to better identify the environmental interventions that can help make people better off, improve their educational outcomes and improve their cognitive health,” Benjamin explained.
In fact, Benjamin’s past research has focused on the environmental changes that downplay genes’ importance in educational attainment. For instance, his May paper found that polygenic scores were less predictive of educational attainment in younger Swedish generations compared to older generations. This could mean that the country’s educational reforms enacted in the 20th century were successful in creating more equal opportunities for people.
Belsky also agrees that the point of understanding DNA’s effects on educational achievement is to help develop programs that benefit everyone, regardless of what’s written on their genotype.
“Just because genes predict life outcomes, doesn’t mean they determine them,” Belsky concluded. “The key is to find the pathways — molecular and behavioral — that connect our DNA with outcomes like educational success.”