Differential ability and attainment in language and arithmetic of Dutch primary school pupils

Br J Educ Psychol. 2008 Sep;78(Pt 3):491-506. doi: 10.1348/000709907X235981. Epub 2007 Aug 20.


Background: In preschool and primary education, pupils differ in many abilities and competences (giftedness). Yet mainstream educational practice seems rather homogeneous in providing age-based or grade-class subject matter approaches.

Aims: To clarify whether pupils scoring initially at high ability level do develop and attain differently at school with respect to language and arithmetic compared with those displaying other initial ability levels. To investigate whether specific individual, family, or educational variables covary with the attainment of these different types of pupils in school.

Samples: Data from the large-scale PRIMA cohort study including a total of 8,258 Grades 2 and 4 pupils from 438 primary schools in The Netherlands.

Methods: Secondary analyses were carried out to construct gain scores for both language and arithmetic proficiency and a number of behavioural, attitudinal, family, and educational characteristics. The pupils were grouped into four different ability categories (highly able, able, above average, average or below average). Further analyses used Pearson correlations and analyses of variance both between- and within-ability categories. Cross-validation was done by introducing a cohort of younger pupils in preschool and grouping both cohorts into decile groups based on initial ability in language and arithmetic.

Results: Highly able pupils generally decreased in attainment in both language and arithmetic, whereas pupils in average and below-average groups improved their language and arithmetic scores. Only with highly able pupils were some educational characteristics correlated with the pupils' development in achievement, behaviour, and attitudes.

Conclusions: Preschool and primary education should better match pupils' differences in abilities and competences from their start in preschool to improve their functioning, learning processes, and outcomes. Recommendations for educational improvement strategies are presented at the end of the article.

MeSH terms

  • Achievement*
  • Aptitude
  • Child
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Mathematics*
  • Netherlands
  • Schools
  • Students*