Students Who Struggle Early Rarely Catch Up, Study Says

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 11, 2012 4 min read
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Even at high-performing, wealthy high schools, students who have fallen far behind academically in 4th and 8th grade have less than a 1 in 3 chance of being ready for college or a career by the end of high school, according to a new study by the national testing group ACT Inc.

The study, “Getting Students on Track to College and Career Readiness: How Many Catch Up from Far Behind?” which was presented through the Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest on Monday, uses data from 391,000 students who took the testing group’s EXPLORE assessment in 8th grade, PLAN test in 10th, and the ACT in 12th grade, during a time period of 2003 through 2010. ACT researchers Chrys Dougherty and Steve Fleming also tracked two groups of about 36,000 Arkansas students who took their state standardized tests in 4th grade and EXPLORE in 8th grade.

For English, reading, mathematics, and science, researchers grouped 8th and 12th graders into one of three levels of academic readiness. Students were considered “on track” if they met the EXPLORE test’s college-readiness benchmark score; “off track” if they missed it but were within one standard deviation of the score; and “far off track” if they scored more than one full standard deviation below their peers.

For example, an 8th grader who scored at least 15 in reading on EXPLORE would be considered on track, while a peer who scored at least 9 would be off track, and one who scored below that would be far off track. The actual cut-off scores vary by subject; for example, a student who scored 13 in EXPLORE mathematics would be considered far off track, but the same score in reading would be on track. In any subject, being a full standard deviation below the readiness benchmark is a huge gap, about equal to the difference in students scoring at the basic and proficient levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

For 4th graders, the researchers identified students’ academic standing by comparing test scores to literacy and math benchmarks on the Arkansas standardized tests which had been previous shown to be associated with a student having at least an even chance of meeting the 8th grade EXPLORE standard.

These are not representative samples of American students; Dougherty admitted the group is biased in favor of students already motivated to prepare for and attend college, since they are taking the ACT at all. And that makes the researchers’ findings that much more potent: Students who fall far behind in early grades never catch up, even when they are obviously motivated to do so, and even when they attend high-achieving schools with more resources to help them.

“It’s clearly got to be more than motivation,” Dougherty said. “I don’t play golf, but say someone came today and inspired me to take up golf. I could change my golfing behavior overnight if I was properly inspired, but my golf-playing skill would take a lot longer to materialize. There’s a difference between behavior change and change in accumulated skill.”

As the chart above shows, ACT found that only 10 percent of students who were far behind their peers in college- and career-readiness benchmarks in reading in 8th grade were able to meet readiness benchmarks in 12th grade. Other subjects were even harder to recoup: only 6 percent of students far behind in science and 3 percent of those far behind in math had caught up by the end of high school. Moreover, they found that only about 1 in 10 students who were “far off track” in reading or math in 4th grade met the on-track benchmarks in 8th grade, suggesting these children’s academic gaps start early and never close.

School resources seem to make a difference in how well educators can boost students who fall behind, but not as much as one might think. At schools in which more than half of students lived in poverty, only 6 percent of students far behind in reading in 8th grade and 3 percent of those far behind in math and science were deemed ready for college and careers by the end of high school. The 10 percent best-performing high-poverty schools did better, preparing 17 percent of those who had fallen far behind in reading, 12 percent of those struggling in science, and 9 percent of those far behind in math in middle school.

Yet even in the 10 percent highest-performing schools with a majority of their students not in poverty, the outlook for a student who falls behind in elementary or middle school is pretty bleak: For students who performed more than a standard deviation below their peers in 8th grade, 32 percent caught up in reading, 21 percent caught up in science, and 17 percent caught up in math by 12th grade.

“Relatively few high schools even got over 25 percent of their far-off kids caught up, and generally those were the more advantaged high schools,” Doughtery told me. “The lesson is that the needle of academic achievement moves slowly, because essentially you are building knowledge and skills that develop over time. It’s one of those pieces of research that when you tell people, they say, ‘We knew it all along,’ but they don’t know it, because if they did, and they acted as if they knew it, they would be much more focused on early interventions.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.