Fallen high flyers don't fall far

Yesterday, we looked at the first finding of Fordham's new groundbreaking study, Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students, which examines the achievement of individual high-performing students?or ?high flyers??over time. The report found that a majority of high flyers?nearly three in five?maintained their altitude across grades. The converse, of course, is that around 30 to 50 percent (depending on grade range and subject) of initial high achievers ?lost altitude? (earning them the designation of ?Descenders?). But the high-achieving pool did not shrink with the loss of the Descenders. On the contrary, it grew, thanks to an influx of students ascending into the high-achieving ranks (earning them the designation of ?Late Bloomers.?

These trends beg the question: For those students who ?lose altitude? over time, how far do they fall? And for those who climb into the top tier, how did they perform academically in earlier grades?

The answer: The majority of students who attained high-flyer status at one point in time did not stray far from it.

In other words, most of the students who entered or exited the 90th percentile did so from not far below it. As Figure 2 shows, in elementary/middle school math, the average student who fell below the 90th percentile by eighth grade only fell as far as the 77th percentile. And the average student who rose to the 90th percentile by eighth grade began near the 74th percentile in third grade. Additional analyses in the report found that virtually none of these students began or ended below the 50th percentile.

With all this volatility, how did the demographics of the high achievers change over time? While minority students were underrepresented among high achievers overall, their numbers grew over time. In other words, there were proportionally more minority high achievers at the end of the study than at the beginning. Girls were underrepresented among high achievers in math and over represented among high achievers in reading, but their proportions grew in both subjects throughout the study. And finally, though high-poverty students were underrepresented among initial high achievers, their proportions declined further over time.

The future prosperity of our nation rests not only on our ability to improve the performance of our lowest-achieving students, but also on our ability to support and advance the performance of our highest-achieving students. As these findings show, while the vast majority of those entering and exiting the high-achieving ranks were never low performers, the decline of a student from above the 90th percentile to just below the 80th is likely to have a substantive impact on his long-term education outcomes. Students performing at or above the 90th percentile are more likely to have access to gifted programs in elementary school and honors or advanced placement courses in high school. If they maintain their achievement and grades, their performance is likely to qualify them for selective colleges and universities and for higher tiers of merit aid than other students. Every casualty among this group is a loss in potential human capital, and schools need to find and implement strategies that effectively stem performance losses among students who show promise in the early grades.

Those students entering the high-achieving ranks from the 70th and 80th percentile, however, demonstrate that growth into high-achiever status is not just possible, but common for above-average students. The progress of these students begs the question: How can we improve the achievement of other students performing in the 70th and 80th percentiles?

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

Janie Scull
Janie Scull is a Research Analyst and Production Manager at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute