Genetics & educational use of DNA based data

Are you ready for the genetic revolution in education?

See Kappan, October 2021 by Russell T. Warne


Reviews the use of DNA based testing and genetics in education. Includes heritability, polygenic scores, genome wide associations, and their use. Includes implications of their use for children, students, and their schooling and others schooling now and in the future.

Heritability is the degree to which genetic variations lead to variations in physical traits, psychological characteristics, and life outcomes. It is generally agreed that almost every observable human characteristic is heritable to some extent.

First Law of Behavioral Genetics is DNA doesn’t determine out fate, but it does have influence on most aspects of our lives.

Heritability can be expressed as a proportion with a range from 0 - 1.

Below are some biophysically related heritabilities:

Source Polderman et al. 2015

Heritability scores

Scores related to educational attainment that are .50 or higher, implies genetics is the most important reason that children differ from one another in academic achievement. All other environmental reasons combined, explain 50% or less variance in academic outcomes. Which include both in school and out of school experiences, of all environmental factors put together (neighborhood characteristics, family income, ….)


It is important to remember that each heritability value is a population level statistic and does not make sense to apply to a specific student (individual students will range widely in their abilities). For example that 60% of their reading achievement is because of their genetics and 40% is because of their environment. Both in school and out of school factors (how much parents read with them). 

It should also be understood that heritability values increase as children age. This is because as kids get older, their DNA has a greater influence on their performance by about .07 per grade and reaching .60 by the end of high school (Rimfeld etc al. 2015).

Genome wide association

Genome wide association study (GWAS) is an approach used in genetics research to associate specific genetic variations with particular diseases. In education it is the use of genetics to associate different educational variations.

In 2018 a GWAS identified 1 271 genetic variations correlated with educational attainment as measured by the total number of years of schooling an adult has had. (Lee et al. 2018)

Polygenic scores from DNA

Polygenic scores are derived from Polygenic risk scores which provide a measure of a person's disease risk due to their genes (DNA). Combining polygenic risk scores with other factors can give a better idea of how likely a person is to get a specific disease than considering either alone. Source

Similar procedures are used to predict educational outcomes from DNA sequences. Which can be a better predictor than parental income. A DNA test at birth can give a better prediction than the parent’s salaries, for how much education the new born will achieve. Together a combination of polygenic scores with information about childhood socioeconomic status are more accurate than either alone. (Von Stumm et al. 2020)

Examples related to education

Education related heritability scores:

DNA based predictions of 6th grade standardized achievement test scores is .74.

Prediction of 6th grade students’ study skills is about .60.

First grade heritability scores for spelling achievement is .35. Meaning it is more influenced by environmental factors than genetics.

The use of polygenic scores could be problematic if they are treated as destiny instead of as one indicator to assign learners to appropriate learning experiences. 

Decision issues for educational use of DNA data

It should be noted that use of current polygenic scores not have a degree of reliability to make good educational decisions for individual learners. Current data may not be accurate and it is not representative of diverse racial and ethnic populations. 

However, as the technology and data bases improve it will be more likely people will use or desire to use DNA data to make decisions.  Decisions like those currently made in law enforcement to identify suspects, genetic screening during the process of artificial insemination for the selection of specific traits in embryos, and to be aware of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (2008), which currently bans the use of genetic information in employment decisions. 

Ideas related to education decisions for the use of DNA based testing

The following are ideas that need further investigation and considerable discussion to consider and establish principled procedures and rules for the use of DNA based test results.

These are just some of the ideas or questions educators and school communities need to begin to discuss to be prepared for what the future will bring. 



Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes
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