A majority of high-flying students remain that way

Yesterday, Fordham released a groundbreaking study examining the achievement of individual high-performing students?or ?high flyers??over time. While accountability systems today have placed primary emphasis on the performance of low-achieving students, scant research has examined the progress of high achievers. This new study begins to fill that void by investigating whether high achievers remain that way over time; whether those students who fall out of the high-achieving ranks fall far below; and whether high achievers demonstrate more progress over time than their middle- and low-achieving peers.

Before we dive into the first of those questions, a little background on the methodology. We tracked two cohorts of students over time: an elementary/middle school group from third to eighth grades, and a middle/high school group from sixth to tenth grades. In each group, we defined high-achieving students as those who ranked at or above the 90th percentile, based on an external norm. In other words, the study sample (comprising the two cohorts) and the normed sample were separate, meaning that more or less than 10 percent of the students in the study could perform at or above the 90th normed percentile. We examined student performance in math and reading.

Now, the first question: Do high achievers remain high-achieving over time?

The answer: A majority of high flyers remain that way over time, but substantial numbers ?lose altitude.? As shown in Figure 1, nearly three in five students identified as high-achieving in the initial year of the study remained high-achieving in the final year (we call them ?Steady High Flyers?). Retention was greatest in middle/high school math: Nearly 70 percent of students who were high-achieving in math in sixth grade were still high-achieving in math in tenth grade.

The converse of these students, of course, was the 30 to 50 percent of initially high-achieving students that proved unstable and lost that status over time (earning them the designation of ?Descenders?).

Though substantial proportions of the high achievers lost that status over time, that isn't to say that the pool of high-achieving students shrank; on the contrary, it grew, thanks to students ascending into the high-achieving ranks. In other words, the number of students falling below the external 90th percentile was surpassed by the number of students rising above it. The percentage of high flyers in math at the elementary/middle level, for instance, grew from 12.4 percent of all students in third grade to 14.1 percent in eighth grade.

What these data tell us is that the body of high-achievers in classrooms and schools across the nation is volatile; many students decline in their academics over time, while others improve. Those that fall should be of great concern for educators. Once a student's capacity for high achievement is established, the school's objective should be to ensure that that student maintains an upward trajectory. At the same time, we now know that many students who are not initially high-achieving have great potential.

Who are these students who fall and rise in their academics? Can we identify them? And what can we tell about their academic trajectories?in other words, how far do the Descenders fall, and how far do those entering the high-achieving ranks have to climb to reach that height? We'll turn to those questions tomorrow. Or, you can download a copy of Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students here, or visit the report data gallery, hosted by the Kingsbury Center at the Northwest Evaluation Association, here.

? Janie Scull

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