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Education Reform May Leave High-Performing Students Behind

by Administrator on Nov 20, 2014 Education 484 Views

While national reading and math tests released Thursday show students have been making slow but steady gains, some education reformers say efforts to close achievement gaps have missed an entire group of students: those who perform at an advanced level.

That's because in recent years, policy incentives and punishments for American school districts have been focused around closing the achievement gaps at the bottom end of the spectrum – bringing underperforming students up to grade level. In the most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, around a quarter of students at both grade levels and subjects are performing at a level below basic. But no more than 9 percent in any category perform at an advanced level.

Jonathan Plucker, an education professor at the University of Connecticut, says moving students toward an advanced achievement level is an issue in itself in the United States. But it's within that group of advanced students that an even larger achievement gap exists, he says. White, Asian American and more affluent students consistently perform better than African American, Hispanic and poorer students.

"Declaring victory at minimum competency, which is what our system essentially does, is just really starting to worry us a little bit," Plucker says. "How much longer can we sustain this?"

Plucker and his colleagues released a report last month on the issue that used data from the 2011 NAEP report, showing that the excellence gaps have actually increased in the era of No Child Left Behind, which shifted focus and accountability measures towards bringing low performing students up to grade level. Some of those gaps have narrowed, but the NAEP data released Thursday shows that the situation has only gotten worse for higher performing students.

In 2011, 19.2 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander students performed at an advanced level in fourth grade reading. By comparison, 9 percent of white students fell into that category. But only 1.9 percent of Hispanic and 1.1 percent of African American students did so.

In one category, eighth grade reading, the gaps appeared to be smaller. But that's only because all subgroups of students performed poorly. On the higher end, almost 8 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander students scored at an advanced level, while 4.7 percent of white, 1 percent of Hispanic and 0.7 percent of African American students did so.

"I just don't get how we could have let this happen," Plucker says. "It's just mass mediocrity. There's just no way that can be good for us moving forward."

Plucker says in terms of economic growth, a much bigger problem is the lack of excellence among students overall, as well as the achievement gaps that exist among advanced students.

"We look at these huge performance deficits at the top end," Plucker says. "Clearly our brightest black students, Hispanic students, poor students, they are not performing at high levels."

"I don't know what we're doing wrong, but we're doing something really wrong," he added.

In a time when the economy is becoming more globally competitive, Plucker says it's important to ensure there are enough high-achieving students to fill jobs that will drive the economy.

"I just don't know where all this talent is going to come from if we don't start to close these excellence gaps," Plucker says.

In states such as California and Texas, for example, where there are a large percentage of Hispanic students, no more than 2 percent in fourth and eighth grade tested at or above advanced in 2011 and no more than 2 percent of students on free or reduced lunch plans did so.

Some achievement gaps for lower performing students have narrowed in recent years: since 2011, the white-Hispanic reading gap narrowed in two states for fourth graders and in four for eighth graders, for example. But in that same time, achievement gaps for higher performing students have expanded, says Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy development at The Education Trust, an advocacy group focused on closing achievement gaps.

But some see the debate of equity versus excellence as an "either-or" situation, where only one side can win.

Hall says some schools have succeeded in serving low income and minority students, by not just bringing them to a proficient level, but also accelerating their skills into an advanced level of achievement.

"This notion that it's an 'either-or' is absolutely a false choice and it's a harmful choice," Hall says. "While we need to recognize the success we've made, we can't for a minute rest on our laurels."

Hall says one way to do that is to provide greater incentives for effective teachers to move to, and more importantly stay in, schools with high levels of impoverished and minority students. Additionally, Hall says schools need to evaluate how well they are providing access to challenging courses and academic opportunities for higher achieving students.

But Plucker says simply making modifications to state accountability systems, such as allowing them to include measures of how many students move from proficient to advanced achievement levels, would have a noticeable impact.

"It's hard to hold it against anyone that they don't focus on getting more students to score in that excellent range when everything that they're rewarded for, that they're punished for, that they're told to focus on is minimum competency," Plucker says.

Hall and Plucker agree that both achievement gaps are and should be points of concern for educators and policymakers, but they require different responses. One simple change educators and researchers could make to help improve achievement gaps at the top end of the spectrum is to increase awareness, Plucker says.

"Our students in those bottom groups, some of those estimates ... should be inexcusable for everyone in this country, but there's never very much outrage about it," Plucker says. "If we never talk about it, if we never expose the public to it, if policymakers never see it in these press releases and reports, then by definition these kids become invisible."


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