Addressing the learning needs of students performing above grade level

A recent study published by Johns Hopkins’s Institute for Education Policy sets out to uncover how many elementary and middle school students are performing one or more years above grade level. The authors undertake this study to challenge the current education policy focus on achieving grade-level proficiency without accounting for students who perform above grade level.

To answer this broad question, the study examines data from state, multi-state, and national level assessment datasets (five in all). At the state level, the authors delve into data from three assessments: Smarter Balanced in Wisconsin and California and the Florida Standards Assessment in grades 3–8.

In evaluating all three state-level datasets against the states’ respective measures of grade-level proficiency, the authors found significant percentages of students scoring at or above grade level in the spring of their current grade level. In Wisconsin, 25–45 percent of students in grades 3–8 scored at or above grade level. For the same set of grades, 11–37 percent of California students scored at or above grade level. Florida features the highest percentage of students performing at or above grade level, at 30–44 percent for ELA (grades 3–9) and mathematics (grades 3–7).

Turning to the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) multi-state assessment, the authors looked at what percentage of fifth graders were already achieving at fifth-grade end-of-year proficiency levels in reading and mathematics at the beginning of their school year. They also measured how many were way ahead, performing at eighth-grade end-of-year proficiency levels. In math, 14 percent of the fifth-grade students started the year in the first group (achieving fifth-grade end-of-year scores), and 2.4 percent were in the second (at an eighth-grade elevation). In reading, those figures were 35 percent and 10 percent respectively.

Finally, the authors utilize nationally representative data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress collected in grades four, eight, and twelve to examine how many fourth-grade students outscored their eighth-grade counterparts. The authors found that over 5 percent of fourth-grade students outscored eighth-grade students in mathematics, while almost 10 percent of fourth-grade students outperformed the bottom half of eighth-grade students in reading.

On the basis of this diverse pool of data, the authors conclude that a relatively high number of American elementary and middle school students perform above grade level—approximately 20–40 percent in reading and 11–30 in math. They also note that K–12 students performing above grade level fall outside of the primary focus of many federal and state education policies, which are frequently aimed at achieving grade-level proficiency. To prevent these students from continuing to fly below the radar, the authors recommend that states require districts and schools to report the numbers and percentages of students performing above grade level. This would constitute a first step toward heightened transparency and accountability in meeting the learning needs of these students. Our recently released report High Stakes for High Achievers: State Accountability in the Age of ESSA provides additional actionable recommendations for upgrading current accountability systems to better attend to the needs of students performing above grade level.

This study provides a needed reminder that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to education policy cannot successfully meet the needs of all students—and that students performing one (or more) years above grade level are equally deserving of academic support as those working to achieve grade-level proficiency.

SOURCE: Matthew C. Makel, Michael S. Matthews, Scott J. Peters, Karen Rambo-Hernandez, and Jonathan A. Plucker, “How Can So Many Students Be Invisible? Large Percentages of American Students Perform Above Grade Level,” Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy (August 2016). 

Yasmine Rana
Yasmine Rana is a Development Manager at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.