High Stakes for High Schoolers, Part II

State Accountability in the Age of ESSA

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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 summative high school ratings.
  4. Include an indicator that encourages high schools to help able students earn college credit before they graduate.
We find that most current (and planned) state accountability systems provide high schools with few incentives to focus on their high-achieving students. In fact, our analysis indicates that just four states—Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas—have truly praiseworthy systems when it comes to focusing attention on these students, though four others—Alabama, Idaho, Louisiana, and New York—are clearly moving in the right direction in their proposed frameworks.
See the tables below for two sets of ratings: one for the thirty-nine states (plus the District of Columbia) that calculate (or intend to calculate) summative school ratings and one for the eleven states that don’t (or don’t plan to) take this step. 

Table 1: Results for States without Summative School Ratings

Click on each state’s name for an analysis of its high school accountability system as it pertains to high-achieving students.

Idaho*, New York*, Ohio
California*, Kansas, New Jersey, Tennessee
Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina

*Indicates that a state's rating was based upon a planned system.

Table 2: Results for States with Summative School Ratings

Alabama*, Georgia, Louisiana*, Pennsylvania, Texas
Arkansas, Colorado*, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Mexico
Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, WashingtonWest Virginia*, Wyoming
Arizona, District of Columbia, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island*, Utah, Wisconsin
Illinois*, Maine, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia
*Indicates that a state's rating was based upon a planned system.
Fortunately, states now have an opportunity to put America’s schools on the right path. It will take leadership and courage, however, as naysayers will always insist that any attention given to high achievers is inherently elitist. They are wrong. There are hundreds of thousands of American teenagers ready to work harder, reach higher, and go further, if only we give them the chance. Many are children of color and come from poor families. They deserve our attention. State accountability systems can send strong signals about who matters. The right answer is everyone—including high achievers.
Amendment: Due to a data oversight, West Virginia's rating was initially represented as one star out of four in this report's initial publication. As of November 16, 2016, all materials associated with this report have been updated to reflect West Virginia's ranking of two stars for its proposed framework under ESSA. We regret the error.


November 15, 2016
High Stakes for High Schoolers (Find Your State's Profile)
November 15, 2016
High Stakes for High Achievers (Main Report)
November 15, 2016
Foreword & Executive Summary


High Stakes for High Achievers, Part I

State Accountability in the Age of ESSA

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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 or plan to rate schools’ achievement using a model (such as a performance index) that gives additional credit for students achieving at an “advanced” level. Draft federal regulations appear to make these models illegal under the new law.
  • Overall, state accountability systems do very little to encourage schools to pay attention to high-achieving students. Arkansas, Ohio, Oregon, and South Carolina are the only states that can be considered leaders on this issue.

The report offers a number of recommendations to state policy makers, who have the opportunity to dramatically upgrade current accountability systems, as well as one recommendation for the U.S. Department of Education, which is currently in the process of finalizing its ESSA regulations: Allow states to rate academic achievement using a performance index that gives schools additional credit for getting students to an advanced level.

High-achieving students were an afterthought when No Child Left Behind was crafted fifteen years ago. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

Table 1: Results for States without Summative School Ratings

(Click on any of the following state names to view its profile.)

South Carolina
Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey, Tennessee
California, Maryland, Montana, New York, North Dakota

Table 2: Results for States with Summative School Ratings

Arkansas, Oregon
Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Wyoming
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia
Michigan, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia


Click here to download a presentation of the report's findings!


August 31, 2016
High Stakes for High Achievers (Find Your State's Profile)
August 31, 2016
High Stakes for High Achievers (Main Report)
August 31, 2016
Foreword & Executive Summary


Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students

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In Failing Our Brightest Kids, Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Brandon L. Wright argue that for decades, the United States has focused too little on preparing students to achieve at high levels. There are two core problems. First, compared to other countries, the United States does not produce enough outstanding students; and second, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are severely underrepresented among those high-fliers. Boosting academic excellence is an issue of both equity and human capital: Talented students deserve appropriate resources and attention, and the nation needs to develop these students’ abilities to remain competitive in the international arena.
Finn and Wright embark on a study of twelve countries and regions to address these issues, exploring the structures and practices that enable some countries to produce a greater proportion of top-flight students than the United States—and to more equitably represent disadvantaged students among their highest scorers. Based on this research, the book presents a series of ambitious but pragmatic points they believe should inform U.S. policy.
Read the introduction online.
Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students is published by Harvard Education Press and is available to purchase on its website or Amazon.


If you have questions about the book, please email Brandon Wright.


In the Media

August 19, 2015
The Wall Street Journal
September 14, 2015
The Weekly Standard

Common Core and America's High-Achieving Students

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Gadfly editorial by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Northern

While the merit and politics of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been much debated and discussed, one topic has been virtually ignored: What do the standards portend for America’s high-ability students? This brief addresses that question and provides guidance for CCSS-implementing districts and schools as they seek to help these youngsters to reach their learning potential. Four key points emerge.

1. Common Core is no excuse to ditch gifted services.
2. State and local officials should get rid of policies that hurt gifted students and strengthen those that help them.
3. Schools should work hard to make differentiation "real."
4. Schools should make use of existing high-quality materials that help teachers adapt the Common Core for gifted students.

In the Media

February 22, 2015
Education World
February 23, 2015
THE Journal

Exam Schools: Inside America's Most Selective Public High Schools

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What is the best education for exceptionally able and high-achieving youngsters? Can the United States strengthen its future intellectual leadership, economic vitality, and scientific prowess without sacrificing equal opportunity? There are no easy answers but, as Chester Finn and Jessica Hockett show, for more than 100,000 students each year, the solution is to enroll in an academically selective public high school. Exam Schools is the first-ever close-up look at this small, sometimes controversial, yet crucial segment of American public education. This groundbreaking book discusses how these schools work—and their critical role in nurturing the country's brightest students.

What is the best education for exceptionally able and high-achieving youngsters?

The 165 schools identified by Finn and Hockett are located in thirty states, plus the District of Columbia. While some are world renowned, such as Boston Latin and Bronx Science, others are known only in their own communities. The authors survey the schools on issues ranging from admissions and student diversity to teacher selection. They probe sources of political support, curriculum, instructional styles, educational effectiveness, and institutional autonomy. Some of their findings are surprising: Los Angeles, for example, has no "exam schools" while New York City has dozens. Asian-American students are overrepresented—but so are African-American pupils. Culminating with in-depth profiles of eleven exam schools and thoughtful reflection on policy implications, Finn and Hockett ultimately consider whether the country would be better off with more such schools.

At a time of keen attention to the faltering education system, Exam Schools sheds positive light on a group of schools that could well provide a transformative roadmap for many of America's children.

The book is now available from Princeton University Press and Amazon.

In the Media

October 18, 2012
The U.S. News & World Report
December 27, 2012
The Washington Post

Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students

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"Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students," is the first study to examine the performance of America’s highest-achieving children over time at the individual-student level. Produced in partnership with the Northwest Evaluation Association, it finds that many high-achieving students struggle to maintain their elite performance over the years and often fail to improve their reading ability at the same rate as their average and below-average classmates. The study raises troubling questions: Is our obsession with closing achievement gaps and “leaving no child behind” coming at the expense of our “talented tenth”—and America’s future international competitiveness? Read on to learn more.

What people are saying

"This study is important, very important!" - Jim Bohannon The Jim Bohannon Show

"This report attempts to answer the critical and largely-neglected question of how high-performing students are faring in the NCLB-era classroom. The findings speak to the messy and inconvenient reality that individual students’ abilities are not fixed, nor their development predictable. For better and worse, changes in a learner’s academic achievement occur both because and in spite of what and how he or she is taught." - Jessica Hockett is an education consultant and Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) faculty member specializing in differentiated instruction, curriculum design for academically diverse classrooms, and education for gifted and talented learners.

“The NWEA team is to be congratulated for making clear the costs and implications of this effort, and for posing squarely the thorny, unpleasant questions that would-be reformers have consistently sought to avoid.” - Frederick M. Hess is resident scholar and director of education studies at the American Enterprise Institute. 

“This new study demonstrates the importance of appropriate testing and assessment for gifted students–assessment that will give educators and parents solid information on students progress from year to year.” - Paula Olszewski-Kubilius is director of Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development (CTD) and a professor in the School of Education and Social Policy.

"It is my hope that this report debunks, once and for all, the absurdity that high-achieving students will do fine without appropriate services delivered by teachers trained in gifted education strategies." - National Association for Gifted Children.

In the Media

March 14, 2013
The Hechinger Report

Tracking and Detracking: High Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools

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What are the implications of "tracking," or grouping students into separate classes based on their achievement? Many schools have moved away from this practice and reduced the number of subject-area courses offered in a given grade. In this new Thomas B. Fordham Institute report, Brookings scholar Tom Loveless examines tracking and detracking in Massachusetts middle schools, with particular focus on changes that have occurred over time and their implications for high-achieving students. Among the report's key findings detracked schools have fewer advanced students in mathematics than tracked schools. The report also finds that detracking is more popular in schools serving disadvantaged populations. Read the full report to find out more.

Losing Ohio's Future

Why college graduates flee the Buckeye State and what might be done about it

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The media is awash with stories about Ohio's brain drain: in 2007, the Buckeye State saw 6,981 more residents between the ages of 25 and 34 leave the state than migrate into it.  What's worse, the more education these young people have, the more likely they are to leave the state.  The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has sought to shed light on this important problem--and explore possible solutions.

We commissioned the Farkas Duffet Research Group to create a survey tool that could investigate the attitudes of the state's top college students about their views of Ohio as a place to live, work, and invest themselves after graduation.  We also wanted to know how these students view working in and around primary-secondary education and what it would take to entice them into this field.

Growing Pains in the Advanced Placement Program: Do Tough Trade-Offs Lie Ahead?

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In 2002-2003, 1 million students participated in AP by taking at least one exam. Five years later, nearly 1.6 million did—a 50+ percent increase. But is growth all good? Might there be a downside? Are ill prepared students eroding the quality of the program? Perhaps harming the best and brightest? To find out, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute commissioned the Farkas Duffett Research Group to survey AP teachers in public high schools across the country. Perhaps not surprisingly, the AP program remains very popular with its teachers. But there are signs that the move toward "open door" access to AP is starting to cause concern. Read the report to learn more.

An interview with Steve Farkas, President of the Farkas Duffett Research Group.
Fordham commissioned the FDR Group to research and write this report.

High-Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind

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This publication reports the results of the first two (of five) studies of a multifaceted research investigation of the state of high-achieving students in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era.

Part 1: An Analysis of NAEP Data, authored by Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, examines achievement trends for high-achieving students (defined, like low-achieving students, by their performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP) since the early 1990s and, in more detail, since 2000.

Part 2: Results from a National Teacher Survey, authored by Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett of Farkas Duffett Research Group, reports on teachers' own views of how schools are serving high-achieving pupils in the NCLB era.

Related Resources

Slideshow presentation of the findings

Mike discusses the report on Fordham Factor

In A Nutshell brief of the report

Tom Loveless responds to this review of the study.

 Video coverage of our panel event on the report:

High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB from Education Gadfly on Vimeo.

5:30 - Tom Loveless, Brookings Institution
19:05 - Steve Farkas, Farkas Duffett Research Group
33:25 - Josh Wyner, Jack Kent Cooke Foundation
41:15 - Ross Wiener, Education Trust
48:30 - Question & Answer

Tom Loveless's slideshow
Steve Farkas's slideshow

Speaker bios