It will probably come as no surprise to educators that a wide “excellence gap” still exists in our nation’s K-12 public schools: school districts may be touting their improved numbers at the bottom end of the scale, but it turns out that the top end of the scale is also rising. Result? Stagnation or, in some cases, a widening gap.
Earlier this month, researchers at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University in Bloomington released a report entitled “Mind The (Other) Gap” that details how an achievement gap at the higher levels of academic performance has been overlooked due to an emphasis on gaps at the other end, at the minimum competency level. What does this mean? Achievement gaps between girls and boys, between white and disadvantaged minority students, between poor students and their better-off peers, and between fluent speakers of English and English-language learners, have either widened, stayed the same, or declined by a fraction since the late 1990s.
The two researchers used data from as far back as 1996 from 4th and 8th grade reading and math tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAAP) and from state assessments in those subjects. They found, for example, that 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 between 1996 and 2007. By comparison, their better-off peers boosted their representation at the highest levels of the test by more than 5 percentage points, from 3.1 percent to 8.7 percent. This pattern was repeated over and over again in their findings.
As Jonathon A. Plucker, lead author of the report, put it, “People aren’t talking about the gaps at the top. What they basically say is, let’s just focus on minimum-competency gaps.”
As if that were not bad enough, the report also points out that standards are not very high even at the advanced level. On the contrary, it’s common knowledge that the proficiency bar is often set quite low. In plenty of states, 50% or less on many of the tests is considered proficient. And that leads to another problem.
The authors of this report suggest strongly that the nationwide emphasis on bringing up the bottom may be shortchanging our nation’s brightest students. This is only the latest in a spate of research to come to this conclusion. Under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), 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 incentive to boost the achievement of top performers.
Advocates for gifted education have known for a long time that while focusing on proficiency, NCLB has been ignoring the highest performing students. School boards and districts across the country have rethought and rewritten focus goals to align with the demands of NCLB. To that end, funding has been allocated to lift up the lowest performing students toward proficiency point by painful point, motivated by the threat of takeover by the state, and gifted and talented students have almost always been left behind.
The report recommends that any policy discussions should include questions about how NCLB affects the brightest students, especially those from lower-income families, and how it will help other students begin to achieve at higher levels. “This attention need not come at the cost of addressing minimum competency,” the authors write. “Yet continuing to pretend that a nearly complete disregard of high achievement is permissible, especially among underperforming subgroups, is a formula for a mediocre K-12 education system and long-term economic decline.”
Strong words, indeed! Let’s hope we are ready to accept this challenge.
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