High Achievers

Eleven weeks ago, in High Stakes for High Achievers: State Accountability in the Age of ESSA, the Fordham Institute reported that current K–8 accountability systems in most states give teachers scant reason to attend to the learning of high-achieving youngsters. We coupled that bleak finding with a reminder that the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) creates a rare opportunity for state leaders to rethink their accountability systems and thereby set matters right.
Now we’re back with a companion paper, High Stakes for High Schoolers, which appraises state accountability regimes as they affect high-achieving students in high school. We examined states’ current (or planned) accountability systems and rated them based on whether they incorporate under ESSA the following principles to incent schools to prioritize high achievers:
  1. Give high schools incentives for getting more students to an advanced level of achievement.
  2. Use the flexibility provided by ESSA to rate high schools using a true growth model—that is, one that includes the progress of individual students at all achievement levels and not just those who are low-performing or below the “proficient” line.
  3. Make growth—across the achievement spectrum—count at least as much as achievement when determining

As students and teachers settle back into school routines, thousands of high schoolers are getting their first taste of classes that are supposed to prepare them for college. Some of them are sitting in Advanced Placement courses, while others have enrolled in district-designed advanced courses. In general, most people seem to take it for granted that high school courses that are labeled “advanced” are an effective preparation tool for college. A new analysis out of Brookings calls the conventional wisdom into question.

At issue is whether high school courses impact college performance at all. The Brookings authors point to a 2009 review of college preparation from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) that found “low evidence” that academic preparation for college actually improved college classroom outcomes. Despite myriad college preparation methods reviewed, none of them—including advanced coursework like AP classes—was strongly predictive of college readiness.

The Brookings authors did some further analysis of their own on the impacts of high school course-taking. After examining a nationally representative database of U.S. students and controlling for academic, demographic, and individual-level variables, they found that, on average, advanced high school courses do little to prepare students to succeed...

Steve V. Coxon

America’s pipeline for STEM talent is happily expanding, but many groups remain severely underrepresented. This leads to huge disparities in the applicant pool for STEM careers. One reason is clear: family wealth.

Poverty squanders a wealth of STEM potential in childhood. In 2012, 21 percent of children in the U.S. lived in poverty, and that number is increasing. Poverty restricts academic promise in a variety of ways, including inadequate healthcare, lack of access to high-quality preschool and day care, a paucity of school resources, fewer good teachers, and increased school bureaucracy. Despite these disadvantages, there are still more than a million poor children nationwide who rank in the top quartile academically when they start school. Unfortunately, only about half of these children will remain there by the end of fifth grade, and they are twice as likely to drop out of high school as their middle class peer of the same ability. While many have the potential to pursue STEM, the odds are stacked against them.

To ensure that children from low-income families are included in the STEM talent pipeline, we need to start early, provide engaging STEM activities beyond the school day, and connect with families. Certainly by age...

Sally Krisel

Throughout the recent Olympic Games, I reflected on the parallels between elite-level athletics and gifted education, and I thought how much we could learn about developing exceptional ability from what we saw during those two weeks. We appreciate diverse forms of brilliance on the field, in the pool, on the court, and on the track. And we support the long-term dedication of time and resources it takes to achieve athletic excellence. And yet we wonder why, as a society, we have had a harder time openly embracing and celebrating the development of intellectual and creative talent.

It has been suggested that the answer lies in some vague (I would suggest misguided) discomfort related to our nation’s egalitarian roots. Supporters of gifted education counter with the argument that there is something decidedly undemocratic about not providing all children—including those of exceptional ability—with equal opportunity to develop their talents.

A second argument—one that came to mind many times when Rio commentators talked about records that fell during the games—is that by investing heavily in the kinds of programs that promote exceptional performance from gifted students, we may indeed be showing the way to much-improved educational experiences (and achievement) for all students. This argument may finally...

Thanks to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), state leaders today have a rare opportunity to set schools on the right trajectory for years to come. The law gives those policy makers significant leeway to design school accountability systems that will work for students at all levels of achievement.

This is welcome news because most state models need a total overhaul. Relics of the No Child Left Behind Era, they continue to judge schools based largely on the percentage of their students who attain the “proficient” mark on state tests. The signal those schools receive is that “bubble kids”—those performing just below or just above the “proficiency” line—are the students whose learning really matters. Indeed, research has demonstrated that students just below that bar were most likely to make large gains in the NCLB era, while high achievers made lesser improvements.

The students most harmed by these perverse incentives are high-achieving, disadvantaged students who depend most heavily on the public education system to do right by them. Under today’s accountability regimes, their teachers often feel pressure to elevate their low achievers to pass state tests. And their schools face so many other challenges—attendance, discipline, nutrition, etc.—that attending to the educational needs of high...

Dina Brulles and Karen L. Brown

The new school year is on the horizon, and you’re already feeling somewhat apprehensive. You know that transitions are a challenge for your gifted child— whether it’s a new school, a new grade level, a new teacher, or all of the above. You want to make sure that your child’s new teacher understands that your gifted child has learning needs that differ from others. You feel that establishing a close and respectful partnership with your child’s teacher early in the year can ease stress and set a structure for a successful year of learning.

In anticipation of meeting the new teacher, you think about questions you want to ask. You start with the obvious: “Are you aware that my child is gifted? What is your experience teaching gifted children? How do you plan on challenging my child this year?” At the same time, you really don’t want to come across as one of those parents. What’s a parent to do?

Here are five key strategies to form a strong relationship with your gifted child’s teacher:

1. Share information about how your child thinks and feels, along with any specifics that will help the teacher understand your child’s learning needs at school. Respect the process...

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...

The Fordham Institute’s new report, High Stakes for High Achievers: State Accountability in the Age of ESSA, examines whether states' current or planned accountability systems for elementary and middle schools attend to the needs of high-achieving students, as well as how these systems might be redesigned under the Every Student Succeeds Act to better serve all students. It finds that the overwhelming majority of states provide schools with few incentives to focus on their high-achieving students. This is a problem.

Accountability has been a central theme of education reform for almost two decades, driven by the unchallenged central finding of James Coleman’s seminal 1966 study: Although some interventions are demonstrably more effective than others, there’s no direct link between what goes into a school by way of resources and what comes out by way of student learning. Sage policy makers have recognized that trying to micromanage school and district “inputs” is a waste of time. Instead, the prudent course is to (a) clearly state the results that educational institutions ought to produce, (b) assess how satisfactorily those results are being achieved, and then (c) hold schools and school systems to account, with rewards of various sorts for success and...

No Child Left Behind meant well, but it had a pernicious flaw: It created strong incentives for schools to focus all their energy on helping low-performing students get over a modest “proficiency” bar. Meanwhile, it ignored the educational needs of high achievers, who were likely to pass state reading and math tests regardless of what happened in the classroom. Those most hurt by this approach were high-achieving, low-income students.

The Every Student Succeeds Act offers a powerful opportunity to change that. Fordham’s latest report, High Stakes for High Achievers: State Accountability in the Age of ESSA, examines the extent to which states’ current (or planned) accountability systems attend to the educational needs of high-achieving students; it also explains how states can take advantage of ESSA to create systems that serve all students.

Key findings include:

  • Only four states base at least half of their schools’ summative ratings on growth for all students, which should be the primary way that a school's effect on achievement is measured. Seven states and the District of Columbia assign no weight to this measure.
  • Only five states treat high-achieving students as a subgroup and separately report their results at the school level.
  • Fourteen states and the District of Columbia rate
  • ...

Capped by recent reports that Superintendent Dallas Dance wants to drop the "gifted and talented" label altogether, Baltimore County Public Schools' recent undoing of its elementary gifted education program is a classic example of moving American K–12 schooling in the wrong direction—and doing so in the name of equity.

Last year, BCPS jettisoned its decades-long practice of funneling high-achieving second graders into separate, accelerated math and reading classes. Many stayed on that path through high school, but it was deemed unfair because it smacks of "tracking" and gifted classrooms didn't contain enough minority youngsters.

Instead, high achievers will now remain in classes with their lower-achieving peers in grades 3–5, increasing the burden on teachers, who must "differentiate" instruction for all levels in classes with as many as twenty-five pupils.

Teachers try to cope by placing students in groups within their classrooms, differentiating by achievement or ability, and then doing their best to instruct each group in the skills and knowledge prescribed for that grade. Six times each year, they can rearrange groups based on children's progress (or struggle) in each subject.

The impetus for this change was the view that too many kids—particularly minority children—were relegated to low-level coursework with no hope...