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Early Achievers Losing Ground, Study Finds
By Nirvi Shah
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 Tuesday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, raises questions about whether in the era of the No Child Left Behind Act and the widespread 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 bringing up that point as a topic of discussion 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 students who scored at the 90th percentile or above in math as 3rd graders, 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. As an adaptive test, its difficulty is adjusted to the student’s performance.
Analysis of MAP scores in the study also found that of more than 43,000 6th graders who scored in the top tenth on the reading test, only 52.4 percent were scoring as well as 10th graders.
The same results may have been found if the same research had been done in the pre-No Child Left Behind world, Mr. Petrilli said, but there’s no way to tell.
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.
NCLB’s emphasis on getting all students to reach proficiency on math and reading tests may have a negative effect on high-achieving students, he suggested, 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 or in as much depth as they might if a majority of students in a class are high-performing.
“We’ve been making good progress for kids at the bottom and for poor and minority kids—that’s important,” 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 analyzed for the Fordham study compared individual students with ...