Is the Emphasis on Proficiency Shortchanging Higher- and Lower-Achieving Students?

Matthew Walsh

Center on Education Policy
June 2009

The newest report from the Center on Education Policy (CEP) addresses the belief that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) causes teachers to neglect students who are either high- or low-achieving. This debate centers on educators having motivations incentives under NCLB to focus on the middle-of-the-road children, so called "bubble kids," as these are the ones most likely to fall below or reach the proficient level.

Mining data from all 50 states, the report finds that basic and advanced students did not suffer and have better achievement levels across all grades. The center did note, however, that the proficient- and above-level students saw the most gains. The study also found that the lowest gains were made in high schools -- possibly because teenagers may be less likely to obey authority, there may be fewer teachers who teach to the achievement tests and/or fewer Title I funding dollars go to high schools.

Hampering the analysis is the non-uniform nature of individual state data. As the study points out, each state has its own tests and it is often difficult to define basic, proficient, and advanced students. Ohio, for example, has five levels of placement - limited/below basic, basic, proficient, accelerated, and advanced. Notably, this system will change as the new biennial budget reduces the placement ratings to three by disposing of the basic and accelerated levels. Data assessment is crucial to figuring out what works and state data must be readily available and easy to comprehend. National standards would allow organizations to compile more accurate statistics, which could be used to figure out measures (paid for by taxpayers) that are working. Therefore, it is encouraging to see that Ohio and 45 other states are joining forces in the Common Core State Standards Initiative (see here).

For the report, see here. Also, Fordham's June 2008 report, "High-Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind," offers some additional insights into the debate (see here).         

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