Strong Genetic Influence on a UK Nationwide Test of Educational Achievement at the End of Compulsory Education at Age 16
Nicholas G. Shakeshaft, Maciej Trzaskowski, Andrew McMillan, Kaili Rimfeld, Eva Krapohl, Claire M. A. Haworth, Philip S. Dale, Robert Plomin
Published: December 11, 2013
We have previously shown that individual differences in educational achievement are highly heritable in the early and middle school years in the UK. The objective of the present study was to investigate whether similarly high heritability is found at the end of compulsory education (age 16) for the UK-wide examination, called the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). In a national twin sample of 11,117 16-year-olds, heritability was substantial for overall GCSE performance for compulsory core subjects (58%) as well as for each of them individually: English (52%), mathematics (55%) and science (58%). In contrast, the overall effects of shared environment, which includes all family and school influences shared by members of twin pairs growing up in the same family and attending the same school, accounts for about 36% of the variance of mean GCSE scores. The significance of these findings is that individual differences in educational achievement at the end of compulsory education are not primarily an index of the quality of teachers or schools: much more of the variance of GCSE scores can be attributed to genetics than to school or family environment. We suggest a model of education that recognizes the important role of genetics. Rather than a passive model of schooling as instruction (instruere, ‘to build in’), we propose an active model of education (educare, ‘to bring out’) in which children create their own educational experiences in part on the basis of their genetic propensities, which supports the trend towards personalized learning.
Twins in the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) were recruited from birth records of twins born in England and Wales between 1994 and 1996 . Their recruitment and representativeness have been described previously . Children with severe medical problems or whose mothers had severe medical problems during pregnancy were excluded from the analyses. We also excluded children with uncertain or unknown zygosity, and those whose first language was not English. Zygosity was assessed through a parent questionnaire of physical similarity, which has been shown to be over 95% accurate when compared to DNA testing . For cases where zygosity was unclear from this questionnaire, DNA testing was conducted. After exclusions, the total number of individuals for whom GCSE data were obtained at age 16 was 11,117, including 5,474 pairs with data for both co-twins: 2,008 pairs of monozygotic (MZ) twins, 1,730 pairs of same-sex dizygotic (DZ) twins, and 1,736 pairs of opposite-sex DZ twins.
The UK nationwide examination for educational achievement at the end of compulsory education is called the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). English, mathematics and science (the latter comprising physics, chemistry and biology, and taught either as a single- or double-weighted course, or as separate courses for each science) are compulsory. Many schools also require English literature and one or more modern foreign languages, among other subjects. GCSEs are typically available in a diverse range of other subjects, including history, geography, information and communications technology (ICT), music, and physical education (PE). Courses usually begin at age 14 (with some slight variations by school and subject), with exams typically being taken at age 16. There is no mandatory number of GCSEs, but students commonly take between 8–10 subjects, and receiving five or more at grades A*–C is typically a requirement for going on to further education.
Shortly after the completion of their GCSEs, each TEDS family was sent results forms by mail, (followed as necessary by telephone reminders). The forms were completed by the twins' parents, and also included results for qualifications other than GCSEs (e.g., ‘Entry Level Certificates’, designed to fall just below GCSE level), which were not analysed in the present study. In order to permit comparable numerical coding across different qualification types, GCSE results were coded from 11 (A*, the highest grade) to 4 (G, the lowest grade). For all analyses, outliers beyond three standard deviations from the mean were removed.
Table 2 includes rough estimates of heritability based on doubling the differences between the MZ and DZ correlations. The average heritability estimate is 53% across the GCSE scores and composites, similar to the mean GCSE score heritability estimate of 52%. Shared environmental influence, estimated as the difference between the MZ correlation and heritability, is 29% on average across the GCSE scores and 36% for the mean GCSE score. A remarkable finding is that the estimates of heritability and shared environmental influence do not differ substantially across diverse subjects. The humanities subjects have the lowest estimate (40%), and science subjects the highest (60%).
The twin correlations are suggestive of sex differences. Looking at the intraclass correlations for the five sex and zygosity twin groups, quantitative sex differences are apparent across most subjects, in that heritabilities are somewhat greater for boys than for girls and shared environmental influences are greater for girls than for boys ... 57% vs. 47%, respectively, for the overall mean GCSE grade ...
Our results indicate that individual differences in educational achievement are just as strong at the end of compulsory education at age 16 as they are in the earlier school years. Heritability is substantial not only for the core subjects of English (52%), mathematics (55%) and science (58%), but also for the (usually optional) humanities subjects in our dataset (42%). We discuss below the implications of finding that GCSE scores are highly heritable.
Also important is the finding that shared environment accounts for much less variance than does genetics. On average, genetics accounts for almost twice as much of the variance of GCSE scores (53%) as does shared environment (30%), even though shared environmental influences include all family, neighbourhood, and school influences that are shared by members of twin pairs growing up together and attending the same school. In addition, estimates of shared environment are also similar across subjects: English (31%), mathematics (26%), science (24%), and the humanities (32%).
Quantitative sex differences emerged for most subjects, with heritability generally greater for boys and shared environmental influence greater for girls (see Table S4 in File S1). Despite the small effect sizes, it is interesting to speculate about how such a pattern of results could occur; for example, girls might be more susceptible to the shared environmental influences of schools or peers. However, we prefer merely to note these significant sex differences in our sample and to defer speculation about their origins until these results are replicated, for reasons discussed later. ...
Limitations of the present study include general limitations of the twin method, most notably the equal environments assumption – that environmentally-caused similarity is equal for MZ and DZ twins – and the assumption that results for twins generalize to non-twin populations . The equal environments assumption has survived several tests of its validity, but the most persuasive evidence is that similar results are found using two other methods with different assumptions: the adoption method and a quantitative genetic method based on DNA alone ,. In terms of the generalization from twin to non-twin samples, GCSE scores for twins and non-twin siblings have been shown to be very similar in means and variances .
A reader suggest the Winkelvoss twins of Facebook and Bitcoin fame (both played by Armie Hammer in The Social Network) as leaning toward sibling revelry (even though they are extremely competitive against the rest of the world in rowing, business, and litigation). Shelby Steele and Claude Steele might be examples of ideological sibling rivalry.