Mind The Achievement Gap!

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.

Creative Commons - wheany
Judy Molland


Paul Diamond
Paul Diamond8 years ago

What is wrong with you people? This is the American way. To teach/sell/design/campaign/advertise to the lowest common denominator.

Linda J.
Linda J8 years ago

Thanks for article.

Cheryl B.
Cheryl B8 years ago


John Dixon
John Dixon8 years ago


Shailja M.
Shailja Mukhtyar8 years ago

It takes an army / a collective effort to educate youth. ist youths must be encouraged, applauded for good work, parents need to brag to family/ friends in hearing range of the kids. Kids must be proud of achievements.... parents must make time to read to kids, assist w/ homework, or at least take interest in what kid is learning, asking kids to explain what they learn, why they choose certain subjects, what is meaning of st. patricks day, or who was st valentine, who was Susan B Anthony, or Luis Pasteur.

Kids should compete w/ classmates, pushing each other, schools must compete in spelling bs, jeapordy competitions, etc.

kids can present their knowledge in summer camp, or church or teach their younger siblings...

it does not take lots of $, my folks became MD in India for pennies compared to my pre k / nursery school!!

qualified dedicated teachers, supportive staff, more extra credit reports, or opportunity to be involved in the community... talent shows, music, mult. languages, doing above the grade level...
in KG, Im told I did 2nd grade work... spoke 3 indian languages, in addition to english... & I was born in bronx NY!! never spending more than 6 wks in India ( summer vacation)!!

kids need to believe in themselves, have pride, rise to the occasion, & encouraged to excellence. Dont accept mediocrity any longer... Demand better.

Samantha T.
Past Member 8 years ago

I'd love to switch the military budget w/school budget for 3-5yrs in order to get each child textbooks, lower the teacher/student ratio, & put more academically/intellectually classes into place. I'd much rather spend that $$ on education so future generations can prevent wars rather than cause them. We're blessed w/an excellent school district; hwr, we need more advanced classes so these kids don't quit out of boredom. My child was reading, doing math, knew shapes, numbers, colors, etc...all b4 her 2nd birthday. She attends public sch but I teach her @ a higher grade level @ home. in 8yrs of public school, incl kindergarten, she's had maybe 4 B's on her report since 1st grade. All others have been straight A's. She manages & is editor of the school newspaper & is in chorus plus at 13yo, she types btw 75-100wpm! Her art drawings are amazing tho' there aren't any special art classes & they don't offer pottery altho' she can throw pottery on a wheel. I can't afford a kiln or find anyone to help build the studio we started b4 her dad became ill so that's on indefinite hold b/c i can't find help to complete it. We could advance the art class if I could make this happen. Teachers could use real clay & I could fire it in a kiln, which I have $ to buy one but nowhere to put it yet. I wish more classes were available for the gifted students. Boredom will lead to quitting, which isn't acceptable. It's time we step up. I'm doing all I can for my child but I can't do

kerick walters
Past Member 8 years ago

instead of spending billions of dollars to turn America into a police state that money if spent on education, ( not indoctrinating ) to focus on all children by applying different methods of instruction, text book, hands on, visual, verbal etc.. challenge students to excel by raising standards, inspire them to desire to learn by targeting where they excel and what interests them. target areas needing improvement and find ways to excel . teach them constitutional law, economics, importance of honesty, integrity. to be concerned for the well being of their neighbors. and the damage it does to ones self and the community to lie, cheat, steal. the nation and the world would be a far better place

Catrina V.
Catrina Velez8 years ago

A majority of these comments seem to agree that too much attention and funds are going to the dullards and not enough for the intelligent. Only one mentioned "elitist snobs." The fault of the educational system is simple; from the outset, it was designed to process large numbers of students of average abilities in groups. But, during the past century, it has ballooned into a gigantic funnel through which all young people in America are forced to pass. Child labor laws, enacted to protect kids from exploitation in factories and mines, have eliminated all opportunities for on-the-job-learning.. Apprenticeships have all but disappeared. Young people are forced to endure a prolonged childhood, which many actively resent. Schools have achieved a monopoly on diplomas, and woe to anyone who does not have one! Lately, the home-school movement has been challenging the schoolroom stranglehold, and this is a very good thing. When public education has some real run-for-the-money competition, more than private schools for the elite and religious academies, only then will anything start to improve.

Andy W.
Past Member 8 years ago

'It's the poor wot gets the blame.'

Ernest D.
Ernest D.8 years ago

The highest academically performing countries have high standards from the lowest levels. In Korea, 2nd and 3rd graders are learning basic Algebra. Most countries make learning multiple languages a requirement, especially in Europe. Learning multiple languages, like learning music expands one's ability to memorize, to learn, etc. We should teach children to use the Abacus rather than the calculator. We can even teach them to use their fingers as a abacus, and do it in their head to become human calculators. There are countless methods for learning that B and A students know, either intuitively, by trial and error, or that they have been taught, that lower achieving students don't know. Using linking for memorization is a good one. So too is, going through a chapter & making questions out of every bold, italicized text, and questions at chapter section or end of the chapter. Than reading through the chapter a second time trying to answer the questions you have created, and finally reading the chapter from begging to end. I have seen a student go from Cs, Ds, & Fs to As & Bs.overnight through this process. Neatness, organization, reading the chapter before the class begins to study it in class, so when its covered in class, a review rather than an introduction are also great techniques. The problem is, kids are not indoctrinated to this from day one, and fall so far behind that, they can't catch up. Teachers don't give kids bad grades for not having read the chapte