School & District Management

Many Early Achievers Lose Academic Edge, Researchers Conclude

September 27, 2011 5 min read

A new study finds that many high-performing students lose ground from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school, and the authors ask what that means for America’s role as a world leader in innovation.

The study, released last week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, raises questions about whether in the era of the No Child Left Behind Act and the dismantling of policies that group students by ability, public schools have been forced to make a trade-off, said Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Washington think tank and a former U.S. Department of Education official under President George W. Bush.

“Is helping kids at the bottom improve hurting kids at the top?” he said, acknowledging that discussing that point can be difficult, but arguing that it’s necessary. “Let’s be honest about the trade-offs. It doesn’t make you a bad person or a racist.”

Tracking the individual scores of nearly 82,000 students on the Measures of Academic Progress, a computerized adaptive test, the study found, for example, that of the 10,166 students who scored at the 90th percentile or above in math as 3rd graders in 2008, only 57.3 percent scored as well by the time they were 8th graders. The map test was developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit group based in Portland, Ore.

Outcomes of Initial High Flyers

Only 57 percent of students who started out as high achievers in mathematics in 3rd grade manage to maintain their academic edge through 8th grade (the high flyers). The remaining 44 percent of students (the decenders) lose ground over the same grade span. The story is similar for reading achievement and for 6th grade high flyers as they move to 10th grade, according to the Fordham Institute study.

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NOTE: The numbers may not add up to 100 percent due to rounding.
SOURCE: Thomas B. Fordham Institute

The analysis also found that of more than 43,000 6th graders who scored in the top 10th on the reading test, only 52.4 percent were scoring as well in 10th grade.

The same results may have been found if the study had been done in the pre-No Child Left Behind world, Mr. Petrilli said, but there’s no way to tell.

He believes NCLB’s emphasis on getting all students to reach proficiency on math and reading tests may have a negative effect on high-achieving students, especially when combined with other policies such as those that encourage more students, regardless of their academic records, to take Advanced Placement courses. Teachers working with students with a mix of abilities, he said, may not be able to cover as much material in as much depth as they might in a class with a majority of high-performing students.

“We’ve been making good progress for kids at the bottom and for poor and minority kids,” Mr. Petrilli said. “It just can’t be the only thing that we do.”

The study, “Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude?,” builds on a previous report from Fordham that suggests nationwide policies aimed at making schools more accountable for improving low-performing students’ achievement are hurting the brightest students. That 2008 report found that from 2000 to 2007, achievement for students who were the highest performers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress was flat, while the lowest-performing students improved dramatically.

Unlike NAEP, which compares different cohorts of students, the map data compared individual students with themselves.

Growth for Some

The new study also found that while some high-achieving students faltered, others developed into high performers as they got older, although those students were likely to have scored between the 50th and 80th percentiles in the first place. In addition, many of the initially high-achieving students whose test scores fell below the 90th percentile didn’t fall far. Many scored in the 70th percentile or higher years later.

The Fordham authors also acknowledge that the idea that all high-achieving students will remain that way indefinitely is “naive, ... just as it’s naive to expect 100 percent of students to reach ‘proficient,’ ” the mandate of the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB is the current version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Reauthorization of the ESEA is stalled in Congress, but the Obama administration has signaled it would allow waivers that would give states wiggle room on some of the current law’s requirements.

Earlier this year, a coalition of advocacy and education groups, including the Education Trust and the National Council of La Raza, both based in Washington, wrote to U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, sharing their concerns about weakening key provisions in the law. They want to see changes in the law, but they fear some proposals for reauthorizing it could shortchange racial minorities and other historically overlooked groups of students.

“We also want to ensure that the law keeps its commitment to the children and schools it was designed to serve,” the March letter signed by 32 organizations read. “Quality education is a civil right, and the lack of it for all children is the civil rights issue of our time.

“The past decade has seen an unprecedented focus on closing the insidious achievement gaps plaguing America’s schools,” it continued. “While there has been some progress towards closing those gaps, they remain a pernicious reality that must be confronted and addressed with even greater vigor.”

Most analysts expected that the changes would include permitting states to use so-called growth models, allowing them to get credit for moving the needle on individual student achievement, as opposed to improving outcomes for each new cohort of students.

Advocates on Defensive

A focus on student growth could compel states to do more to ensure their highest-achieving students continue to make progress, some analysts say.

The new Fordham Institute findings come as advocates for gifted and high-achieving students have been on the defensive, with Congress’ elimination of funding for the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Program earlier this year. With the program’s $7.5 million in funding scrapped, “there’s not funding at the federal level for high achievers,” said Nancy Green, the executive director of the National Association of Gifted Children, based in Washington.

She said the study results zero in on the need for more attention to be paid to high achievers. “These kids need something different. When you don’t use your muscles, they atrophy.”

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Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2011 edition of Education Week as Many Early Achievers Lose Academic Edge, Researchers Conclude

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