The Icarus Syndrome: Why Do Some High Flyers Soar While Others Fall?

Why do many high-achieving students struggle to sustain their academic performance over time? Eric Parsons, an economist at the University of Missouri, takes a crack at finding the answer—and unearths a paradox. In this study, he follows a single cohort of high-performing students in Missouri from grade 3 through grade 9 to see which school factors influence their academic success. Initial high flyers are defined as those who score in the top 10 percent of their grade cohort for grade 3 or grade 4 and do not score outside of the top 20 percent for the other year. Then he further sorts the initial high flyers into two groups: “soaring” and “falling,” based on their scores on grade 7 and 8 math exams. “Soaring” means a student scores in the top 10 percent on either grade 7 or 8 exams and doesn’t fall outside the top 20 percent in either grade. “Falling” means she doesn’t meet that criteria. There were five key findings: First, nearly two-fifths of the initial high flyers lost their high-flyer status by the end of the study. (This sounds familiar.) Second, both soaring and falling high flyers begin their school careers in high-achieving schools, but by the end of the study, many falling high flyers are no longer attending above-average schools—and some are attending schools that produce below-average growth. Third, schools doing well with their low performers also appear to do well with their high performers. Specifically, moving to a school that does a quarter of a standard deviation better with low performers increases the probability that a high flyer maintains her status by nearly 9 percentage points. Fourth, high performers who attend lower-performing schools are more likely to take Algebra I later, relative to their peers who attend higher-performing schools. Fifth—and surprisingly—as both the number and share of high flyers increase within a school, high flyers are less likely to maintain their high flying status—this after controlling for overall school quality and school achievement. Does this means that the competition for resources is not between the haves and have-nots but among the most able? Could it be that schools with many high flyers are less likely to notice if some of them slip through the cracks, especially if they are still firmly above average? We can’t know for sure. There is a lot to unpack here—some of which does not jibe with previous research.

Eric Parsons, “The Icarus Syndrome: Why Do Some High Flyers Soar While Others Fall?” Working Paper (Columbia, MO: Economic and Policy Analysis Research Center, Department of Economics at the University of Missouri–Columbia, July 2013).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is a Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute