No high achiever left behind, please
In the latest edition of National Affairs, education scholar Rick Hess writes:
The No Child Left Behind Act’s signal contribution has been [a] sustained fixation on achievement gaps—a fixation that has been almost universally hailed as an unmitigated good.…Such sentiments are admirable, and helping the lowest-achieving students do better is of course a worthy and important aim. But the effort to close gaps has hardly been an unmitigated blessing.
While Hess is the latest observer of this achievement-gap obsession, he is by no means the only soldier in this camp. Many analysts worry that various government policies and programs, including NCLB, tend to “level” pupil achievement by focusing on the lowest-performing students and ignoring—or, worse, driving resources away from—our strongest students.
Fordham has previously provided some ammo for these worriers. In 2008, Brookings scholar Tom Loveless tracked NAEP results of high achievers—and found they made little progress as a group over the last decade. Until now, however, no one had examined the achievement of top-performing students over time at the individual level. This week, Fordham released a groundbreaking study that does exactly that: Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students. The study asks a simple question: Do youngsters who outscore their peers on standardized achievement tests remain at the top of the pack year after year? Put differently, how many “high flyers” maintain their “altitude” over time? How many fall back toward Earth, Icarus-like, as they proceed through school, losing the academic edge they once enjoyed?
To answer these questions, Fordham enlisted analysts from the Northwest Evaluation Association™ (NWEA) to examine achievement trends for students who scored extremely well on NWEA’s own highly-regarded assessment, the Measures of Academic Progress™ (MAP).
In this study, we defined high achievers as students who score at the 90th percentile or above according to external norms, but we also allowed for as many students within the subset being tracked to enter those ranks as qualified to do so.
If the schools these students attend are adequately challenging them to continue learning at high levels—and providing them the instruction they need to do so—one would logically expect most of them to maintain their lofty standing over time. On the other hand, if these youngsters are left to fend for themselves while attention and resources are showered on their lower-achieving peers, one might expect them to drop closer to average.
To be sure, only a naïf would expect every high-achiever to stay that way forever: Some will surely lose altitude. But if many falter, this should set off alarm bells. It would be especially concerning if many high flyers within particular groups—say, girls, or minority children, or those attending high-poverty schools—descended over time.
So, what did we learn?
- Nearly three in five high flyers maintained their status over time, but 30 to 50 percent “lost altitude.”
- Most who fell didn’t fall far: In fact, the majority of these students remained at the 70th percentile or higher.
- In math, high flyers grew academically at similar rates to low and middle achievers. In reading, however, they grew at slightly slower rates.
What to make of all this? We see four takeaways.
Nearly three in five high flyers maintained their status over time, but 30 to 50 percent 'lost altitude.'
First, many students maintained their high-flying status but many lost it: You can choose to view the results as a glass half-empty or half-full. Some may say there’s no good reason that a child who initially performed at the head of the class shouldn’t continue doing so—and something valuable is lost when that doesn’t happen. They’d be right, too. There are real consequences for graduates who descend from the 90th to the 70th percentile in terms of merit-based aid and choice of college, maybe even of high school or program within the high school. It is up to the parents, schools, teachers, and so on, they’d say, to ensure that a child with that much demonstrated potential maintains buoyancy.
On the other hand, we ended up with more high achievers overall than we started with. “Late bloomers,” as we called them, entered the ranks. Surely that’s good news, and consistent with the American belief in second chances and upward mobility.
Second, and more distressing, the progress of the high achievers didn’t keep up with that of their lower-achieving peers, at least in reading. In fact, high achievers grew about half as fast from third grade to eighth grade as low-achieving elementary/middle school students, reducing the gap between the two groups by over a third. One could celebrate such gap-closing, but one could also be dismayed by the “leveling” at work. We can hypothesize that many factors contributed to these results—perhaps NCLB’s focus on low-performing schools or Reading First’s focus on struggling readers. We simply don’t know—but we are concerned.
Third, poverty amongst one’s schoolmates may not be the thief of high performance that we once thought. Exploratory findings in the study cast doubt on the notion that wealthy suburban schools produce greater academic gains for students than their poorer counterparts. These findings echo the original 1966 Coleman report. Perhaps growth over time for the highest-achievers has little to do with the schools they attend and much to do with what’s happening for them personally and at home. Perhaps.
Finally, while the progress (and the declines) that many students make over several years are notable (and in the former case praiseworthy), they’re not staggering. We applaud those who moved from middle- to high-achieving status but let’s note that most of these kids were already above average at the outset. What we’re not seeing is students clawing their way into the high-achieving ranks from the 20th, 30th, even 40th or 50th percentiles. Instead, students come in and out of the top decile but basically stay within the top third. No, these aren’t the kids that education reformers fuss about. They aren’t catalysts for campaigns to expand school choice, or initiate weighted student funding, or end last-in-first-out policies. They don’t tug at the heartstrings like the needy children in our most wretched school systems. (Some high achievers do attend those schools, mind you.) But they deserve attention, too: Eight, ten, twelve, seventeen years old, with little more than luck determining whether they finish their school careers simply “above average” or among the country’s top achievers and brightest hopes for the future. What will we do to bolster their odds?
|Click to listen to commentary on Fordham's "High Flyers" report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
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