Academic growth of high achievers

Fordham's new report released on Tuesday, Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students, examines individual high-achieving students to find whether the same students remain high-achieving throughout their school years, or whether the high-achieving ranks see lots of turnover. Over the last two days, we've examined two main findings: First, that three in five high-achieving students remain that way over time; and second, that most students coming in and out of the 90th percentile never fall below the 70th percentile overall.

As a group, however, high achievers will by definition always perform better than the vast majority of their peers. But do they further outpace their low- and middle-achieving students each year? Or do those students gain ground on high achievers? (Here we define high achievers as those at or above the 90th percentile; middle achievers as those between the 45th and 54th percentiles, inclusive; and low achievers as those below the 10th percentile.)

The answer: High flyers grew academically at similar rates to low and middle achievers in math, but grew at slightly slower rates than low and middle achievers in reading.

In other words, the gaps between low, middle, and high achievers remained relatively stable over time in math. But in reading, the gaps shrank between high achievers and their low and middle counterparts (Figure 6). From third grade to eighth grade, for example, low-achieving elementary/middle school students grew nearly twice as fast as high achievers in reading, reducing the performance gap between the two groups by over a third. Middle achievers reduced their gap with high achievers in reading by approximately 30 percent. High achievers, to be sure, still outperformed their peers by large gaps; but they did not soar quite as high above them in later years as they had in earlier years.

In an exploratory analysis, the study also introduced a separate line of inquiry that examined whether school-level attributes, particularly school poverty status, have an effect on the growth of high achievers. Here, the study defined high achievers as those students performing at or above the 90th percentile in their individual grades and schools. The analysis found that school poverty had little effect on student growth. For example, high achievers in low-poverty schools performed on average at the 97th percentile in third grade math, while high achievers at high-poverty schools scored at the 83rd percentile?a difference representing over a year's worth of growth. By fifth grade, however, they scored at the 97th and 82nd percentiles, respectively. While high achievers in high-poverty schools grew slightly less than those in low-poverty schools, the difference was marginal.

This challenges the widespread belief that schools in wealthy suburbs will produce the greatest gains in student achievement, at least among the highest achievers. These findings, albeit preliminary, suggest that placing a high-performing student in a high-growth school is largely a lottery. The schools within the sample varied greatly in the growth they produced for high-performing students, rendering the odds that a low-poverty school would produce high growth at only slightly over 50 percent.

If we are truly serious about providing excellence in education for all students, then we should consider changing accountability systems to place emphasis on the growth of low-, middle-, and high-achieving students alike. Our results suggest that this type of accountability would subject some wealthy, underperforming suburban schools to fair and welcome scrutiny.

Download a copy of Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students here, or visit the report data gallery, hosted by the Kingsbury Center at the Northwest Evaluation Association, here.

?Janie Scull

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