No high achiever left behind, please

In the latest edition of National Affairs, education scholar Rick
Hess writes

The No Child Left Behind Act’s signal contribution has
been [a] sustained fixation on achievement gaps—a fixation that has been almost
universally hailed as an unmitigated good.…Such sentiments are admirable, and
helping the lowest-achieving students do better is of course a worthy and
important aim. But the effort to close gaps has hardly been an unmitigated

While Hess is the latest observer of this achievement-gap
obsession, he is by no means the only soldier in this camp. Many analysts worry
that various government policies and programs, including NCLB, tend to “level” pupil
achievement by focusing on the lowest-performing students and ignoring—or,
worse, driving resources away from—our strongest students.

Click to read Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude?Fordham has previously provided some ammo for these
worriers. In 2008, Brookings
scholar Tom Loveless tracked NAEP results
of high achievers—and found they
made little progress as a group over the last decade. Until now, however, no
one had examined the achievement of top-performing students over time at the individual level. This week,
Fordham released a groundbreaking study that does exactly that: Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude?
Performance Trends of Top Students
. The study
asks a simple question: Do youngsters who outscore their peers on standardized achievement
tests remain at the top of the pack year after year? Put differently, how many
“high flyers” maintain their “altitude” over time? How many fall back toward
Earth, Icarus-like, as they proceed through school, losing the academic edge
they once enjoyed?

To answer these questions, Fordham enlisted analysts from
the Northwest Evaluation Association™ (NWEA) to examine achievement trends for students
who scored extremely well on NWEA’s own highly-regarded assessment, the
Measures of Academic Progress™ (MAP).

In this study, we defined high achievers as students who
score at the 90th percentile or above according to external norms, but we also allowed
for as many students within the subset being tracked to enter those ranks as
qualified to do so.

If the schools these students attend are adequately
challenging them to continue learning at high levels—and providing them the
instruction they need to do so—one would logically expect most of them to
maintain their lofty standing over time. On the other hand, if these youngsters
are left to fend for themselves while attention and resources are showered on
their lower-achieving peers, one might expect them to drop closer to average.

To be sure, only a naïf would expect every high-achiever to stay that way forever: Some will surely lose
altitude. But if many falter, this should set off alarm bells. It would be
especially concerning if many high flyers within particular groups—say, girls, or
minority children, or those attending high-poverty schools—descended over time.

So, what did we learn?

  • Nearly three in five high flyers maintained their status over
    time, but 30 to 50 percent “lost altitude.”
  • Most
    who fell didn’t fall far: In fact, the majority of these students remained at
    the 70th percentile or higher.
  • In
    math, high flyers grew academically at similar rates to low and middle
    achievers. In reading, however, they grew at slightly slower rates.

to make of all this? We see four takeaways.

Nearly three in five high flyers maintained their status over time, but 30 to 50 percent 'lost altitude.'


First, many students
maintained their high-flying status but many lost it: You can choose to view
the results as a glass half-empty or half-full. Some may say there’s no good
reason that a child who initially performed at the head of the class shouldn’t
continue doing so—and something valuable is lost when that doesn’t happen. They’d
be right, too. There are real consequences for graduates who descend from the 90th
to the 70th percentile in terms of merit-based aid and choice of college, maybe
even of high school or program within the high school. It is up to the parents,
schools, teachers, and so on, they’d say, to ensure that a child with that much
demonstrated potential maintains buoyancy.

On the other hand, we ended up with more high achievers
overall than we started with. “Late bloomers,” as we called them, entered the
ranks. Surely that’s good news, and consistent with the American belief in
second chances and upward mobility.

Second, and more
distressing, the progress of the high achievers didn’t keep up with that of
their lower-achieving peers, at least in reading. In fact, high achievers grew
about half as fast from third grade to eighth grade as low-achieving
elementary/middle school students, reducing the gap between the two groups by
over a third. One could celebrate such gap-closing, but one could also be
dismayed by the “leveling” at work. We can hypothesize that many factors
contributed to these results—perhaps NCLB’s focus on low-performing schools or
Reading First’s focus on struggling readers. We simply don’t know—but we are

Third, poverty amongst
one’s schoolmates may not be the thief of high performance that we once thought.
Exploratory findings in the study cast doubt on the notion that wealthy
suburban schools produce greater academic gains for students than their poorer
counterparts. These findings echo the original 1966 Coleman report. Perhaps
growth over time for the highest-achievers has little to do with the schools
they attend and much to do with what’s happening for them personally and at
home. Perhaps.

Finally, while the progress (and the declines) that
many students make over several years are notable (and in the former case
praiseworthy), they’re not staggering. We applaud those who moved from middle-
to high-achieving status but let’s note that most of these kids were already
above average at the outset. What we’re not seeing is students clawing their
way into the high-achieving ranks from the 20th, 30th, even 40th or 50th
percentiles. Instead, students come in and out of the top decile but basically
stay within the top third. No, these aren’t the kids that education reformers fuss
about. They aren’t catalysts for campaigns to expand school choice, or initiate
weighted student funding, or end last-in-first-out policies. They don’t tug at
the heartstrings like the needy children in our most wretched school systems.
(Some high achievers do attend those schools, mind you.) But they deserve
attention, too: Eight, ten, twelve, seventeen years old, with little more than
luck determining whether they finish their school careers simply “above
average” or among the country’s top achievers and brightest hopes for the
future. What will we do to bolster their odds?

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Click to listen to commentary on Fordham's "High Flyers" report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.