Only 28 percent of first graders who score in the top quartile come from families with below-average incomes, reports “Achievement Trap,” a study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and Civic Enterprises. Only a third of the early achievers come from families poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. By fifth grade, nearly half of high-scoring, lower-income first graders have slipped out of the top quartile in reading. These students continue to slip out of the top group through middle and high school.
More than 90 percent of lower-income achievers go on to college, but they’re less likely than their higher-income classmates to go to selective colleges and only 59 percent graduate compared to a 77 percent graduation rate for higher-income students.
Oddly enough, the study blames No Child Left Behind for focusing on low achievers even though the data predates NCLB. Still, it’s worthwhile to consider how to sustain the strong starters. Do these kids go to low-expectations schools that don’t challenge them? Is their education more likely to be disrupted by frequent moves? Perhaps their parents can help them with the basics but can’t provide as much help as they move through school? When they get to college, do they falter because they’re trying to work too many hours? The report isn’t designed to answer those questions.