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Genes Make the Grade

How well students perform on end-of-schooling exams is highly heritable, researchers in the UK report in PLOS One this week. Drawing on a cohort of more than 11,000 16-year-old twins, both identical and fraternal, researchers led by King's College London's Robert Plomin examined how the students performed on the General Certificate of Secondary Education exams in English, mathematics, and science, as well as on other, elective topics.

Plomin and his colleagues report that "heritability is substantial," with science results being the most highly heritable at 58 percent, followed by mathematics t 55 percent, and English at 52 percent.

"Rather than a universal, one-size-fits-all approach to educational curricula, a more individually tailored approach is needed that recognizes the strong genetic contribution to individual differences in educational achievement," Plomin and colleagues write.

Michael Reiss, a science education professor, tells the Guardian that the results of this study don't mean a thing. "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. The genetics is utterly irrelevant," he says.

He also says that chalking up educational attainment to genetics may lead to a sort of fatalism. "The worry is that parents, teachers and children themselves start thinking 'It's not worth my while trying, I don't have the genes for it', but that's false logic. The big problem is equating genetics with determinism. It's a very powerful [misconception] and difficult to shift," Reiss adds.