Education

High-Achieving Students From Lower-Income Families Fall Behind, Study Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — September 10, 2007 3 min read
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The educational accountability movement’s keen focus on bringing all students to academic proficiency risks leaving behind a group of particularly promising students: high-achieving children from lower-income families, a report released today contends.

The study analyzes national data to track the school performance of about 3.4 million K-12 children who come from households with incomes below the national median but score in the top quartile on nationally normed tests. It finds that they start school with weaker academic skills and are less likely to flourish over the years in school than their peers from better-off families.

Civic Enterprises LLC, a Washington-based research and public-policy group, and the Lansdowne, Va.-based Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which co-produced the “Achievement Trap” study, urged researchers and policymakers to better understand the dynamics that allow high-achieving, lower-income children to fall behind, and to focus concerted attention on ways to help them.

“By reversing the downward trajectory of their educational achievement, we will not only improve their lives but strengthen our nation by unleashing the potential of literally millions of young people who could be making great contributions to our communities and country,” the report says.

The report’s release coincided with testimony by one of its authors before the education committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on possible revisions to the No Child Left Behind Act. Joshua S. Wyner, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s executive vice president, urged federal lawmakers to broaden the law’s focus so that schools are held accountable for improving the performance of higher-achieving as well as lower-achieving students.

Hobbled From the Start

Higher-achieving children from lower-income families enter school with a disadvantage that shows up in their national test scores, the report says. More than 70 percent of 1st graders who score in the top quartile are from higher-income families, and fewer than three in 10 are from lower-income families.

In the ensuing years, the higher-achieving lower-income children are more likely to lose ground, according to the study. For instance, 44 percent fall out of the top quartile in reading between the 1st and 5th grades, compared with 31 percent of high achievers whose family income is above the national median, which was $48,200 in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

They are also more likely to drop out of high school or not graduate on time than those from economically better-off families, the study found. The difference persists through college and graduate school, with lower-income students less likely to attend the most selective colleges or to graduate.

The report does offer some optimistic notes. Of the higher-achieving students, it says, 93 percent of those from lower-income families, and 97 percent of those from higher-income families, graduate from high school in four years. Those rates are much better than the 70 percent of all students on average that researchers estimate get their diplomas on time. But the data still show too many “unrelenting inequities” that harm the prospects of capable children from lower-income families, the authors say.

The data also suggest the distance still to be traveled in understanding and addressing the dynamics in racial achievement gaps.

Among lower-income students, Asians showed a significantly better chance of staying in the top quartile in math during high school than did other students, and African-American students were the least likely group to rise into that top tier in reading or math, according to the report.

Michelle M. Fine, a professor of social psychology and urban education at the City University of New York, said she welcomed the examination of how economic class can affect children’s education. But addressing the needs of all disadvantaged children, she said, entails a more nuanced examination of how race and class intersect to influence their performance.

“Something is clearly working for those lower-income Asian kids that isn’t working for the lower-income black kids,” she said, referring to the racial-performance breakdowns among lower-income students in the report. “A class-only analysis isn’t going to give us the whole picture.”

Solutions must go beyond the policy thrust advocated in the study, she said, to systemic improvements in districtwide school financing, equitable distribution of highly skilled teachers, and access to quality preschool.

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