School & District Management

Study Finds Wide Achievement Gaps for Top Students

By Debra Viadero — February 05, 2010 4 min read

Achievement gaps between students of different genders and racial, economic, and linguistic groups are large and persistent for the nation’s top-performing students, even as they seem to be narrowing for K-12 students as a whole, according to a new report.

For the analysis, released last week by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University in Bloomington, researchers analyzed data stretching back as far as 1996 from 4th and 8th grade reading and math tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and from state assessments in those subjects.

They found that achievement gaps between girls and boys, white and disadvantaged minority students, poor students and their better-off peers, and English-language learners and their English-speaking counterparts have either widened, stayed the same, or declined by a hair since the late 1990s.

In 4th grade math, for example, the percentage of white students scoring at the advanced level on NAEP increased by about 5 percentage points from 1996 to 2007, rising from 2.9 percent to 7.6 percent. But the percentages of black and Hispanic students scoring at that level grew at the same time from near zero to around 1 percent.

Among 4th graders poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the percentage of advanced-level math scorers rose from near zero to 1.5 percent over the same time span. Their better-off peers, in comparison, managed to boost their representation at the highest levels of the test by more than 5 percentage points, growing from 3.1 percent to 8.7 percent.

“People aren’t talking about the gaps at the top,” said lead author Jonathan A. Plucker, a professor of education and cognitive science at the university. “What they basically say is, let’s just focus on minimum-competency gaps.”

NCLB ‘Irrelevant’

The report is the latest in a spate of research to suggest that the nationwide emphasis on bringing the bottom up may be shortchanging the nation’s best and brightest students. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states and school districts get credit for raising test scores overall and for raising the test scores for particular subgroups, such as black and Hispanic students. But there’s no particular incentive to boost the achievement of top performers, many of whom may be hitting the ceiling on their state assessments.

“We know the proficiency bar is set quite low in most states,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which produced a 2008 report pointing to lagging academic-improvement rates for top performers. “You certainly do not need to be high-achieving to be proficient.”

Mr. Plucker and co-author Nathan Burroughs said their analysis shows that the now 8-year-old law only continued a trend already under way.

“If we were to blame NCLB, that implies that schools were doing a good job at this before NCLB,” said Mr. Plucker. “I think NCLB is actually irrelevant to this.”

Besides looking at the percentages of students reaching advanced achievement levels on tests, the researchers examined the proportions of students from various groups scoring at the 90th percentile or higher—an analysis that yielded slightly more progress in closing gaps. But the narrowing, in many cases, was due to either declining or stagnating scores for white students or incremental improvements for the more disadvantaged groups. Among the 13 instances of gap-closing that the authors found using the percentile measure, the rate of improvement ranged from 0.25 to 0.75 percentile points a year from 2003 to 2007.

At that rate, the report notes, “it would take 38 years for free-lunch-eligible children to match more affluent children in math at grade 4 and 92 years for [English-language learners] to equal non-ELL students.” High-scoring black students at that grade level would catch up to their white peers in 2107, the report estimates.

The researchers also developed profiles of the “excellence gaps” for each state, which are available on the center’s Web site. Their analysis, however, found little overlap between states making progress in raising student performance and closing performance gaps in one area, such as 8th grade reading or 4th grade math, and those achieving similar success in another.

Mr. Plucker said the findings challenge policymakers’ hope that a rising tide would lift all boats. When a state narrowed gaps at the “proficient” level on state tests, the analysis shows, it didn’t necessarily follow that the gaps at the top were reduced as well.

To address the gaps among top performers, the report calls on federal, state, and local policymakers to make a more concerted effort to consider the needs of their most able students and to ease policies that keep them from accelerating their learning by starting college early or skipping grades.

“They need to ask how will this specific policy affect our brightest students?” Mr. Plucker said. “And how will it help other students achieve at high levels?”

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as For High-Scoring Pupils, Achievement Gaps Are Wide, Report Says

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