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October 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 2

Special Report / Neglecting High Achievers

What does it mean when 60 percent of teachers name struggling students as their top priority and 81 percent indicate that struggling students are the most likely to get one-on-one help from teachers—when 86 percent of those same teachers surveyed say that public schools should focus equally on allstudents, regardless of their backgrounds or achievement levels? According to a new report, it means that there's some confusion over the definition of equity in U.S. schools, particularly when it comes to high-achieving students.
A recent two-part report published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB—looks at issues related to the best and brightest in our schools. The first study examines achievement trends for high-achieving students; the second looks at teachers' views on how schools are serving high achievers. Neither study tries to establish a causal link between No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the performance of high-achieving students.
  • Although the United States' lowest-achieving students made rapid gains from 2000 to 2007, the performance of top students was “languid.” The bottom 10 percent of students have shown solid progress in 4th grade reading and math and 8th grade math since 2000, but the top 10 percent have made minimal gains.
  • This pattern of stronger progress for low achievers rather than for high achievers is associated with the introduction of accountability systems in general—and not with NCLB in particular. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data from the 1990s show that states that adopted similar testing and accountability programs saw similar patterns. According to the report, this is because “accountability systems, like NCLB, put pressure on schools to get students over a fairly low bar” (p. 10).
  • Sixty percent of teachers indicated that struggling students—not high achievers—are their top priority. Only 23 percent indicated that “academically advanced” students are a top priority.
  • Eighty-one percent of teachers named “struggling students” as those most likely to get one-on-one attention from teachers. Only 5 percent named “advanced students” as getting that attention.
  • In a forced-choice question, only 11 percent of teachers said that public schools should focus on raising the achievement of disadvantaged students who are struggling academically, whereas 86 percent said schools should focus equally on all students, regardless of their backgrounds or achievement levels. According to Chester E. Finn Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli, in their executive summary of the report, this is an “overwhelming repudiation of one of NCLB's core tenets” (p. 12). They note that one reason the achievement of top students hasn't tumbled in recent years is that “teachers' personal views have ‘mediated’ the federal law's intentions and incentives” (p. 12).
  • Forty percent of teachers said that programs for high-achieving students are “too often watered down and lacking in rigor” (p. 10).
  • Low-income, black, and Hispanic high achievers (on the 2005 8th grade NAEP in math) were more likely than low achievers to be taught by experienced teachers.
Commenting on what they call the overall “benign neglect” of high-achieving students, Finn and Petrilli note that “if gains by low achievers are our only measure of success, America faces big challenges in the years to come” (p. 12).
For a full copy of High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB, go towww.fordhamfoundation.org/publications/index.cfm.

Smart, Black, and Losing Ground

Research has shown that black-white achievement gaps grow most noticeably during the elementary school years. But according to a recent report out of Stanford, they are growing fastest among the most able black and white students.
  • Among students entering kindergarten with the same math and reading skills, black students fall well behind their white peers by 5th grade. The 5th grade scores of black students who enter school with average math and reading skills are one-half a standard deviation below those of their white peers and place at the 20–25th percentile of the white distribution.
  • The black-white gap in both math and reading appears to grow the most quickly among students who enter kindergarten with above-average math and reading skills. The gap grows twice as quickly for students who begin school with scores one standard deviation above the mean as for those who begin one standard deviation below the mean.
The study attributes this pattern to several factors. In addition to socioeconomic realities that may deprive students of valuable resources, high-achieving black students may be exposed to less rigorous curriculums, attend schools with fewer resources, and have teachers who expect less of them academically than they expect of similarly high-achieving white students.
Differential Growth in the Black-White Achievement Gap During Elementary School Among Initially High- and Low-Scoring Students, by Sean F. Reardon, is available atwww.stanford.edu/group/irepp/cgi-bin/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=27&Itemid=43.

Amy Azzam has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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