Many achievers lose their edge

Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude?  Thirty to 50 percent of America’s best students slide in later grades, according to a new Fordham study.  “High flyers” often fail to improve their reading ability at the same rate as their classmates.

Researchers followed more than 120,000 students in 1,500 schools nationwide, looking at progress in math and reading from third to eighth grade in one cohort, and from sixth to tenth grade in another. Top students started at or above the 90th percentile.

“If America is to remain internationally competitive, secure and prosperous,” said Chester E. Finn, Jr., Fordham’s president, “we need to maximize the potential of all our children, including those at the top of the class. Today’s policy debate largely ignores this ‘talented tenth.’

The study also looked at students who ranked in the top 10 percent of their classes at high-poverty schools, even though many were not at the 90th percentile nationwide. High flyers at high-poverty schools made similar academic progress to those at low-poverty schools.

Distressing, but not surprising, responds Rick Hess.

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  1. Many get bored with the slow pace and lack of intellectual challenge, and that turns them off of school entirely. If schools grouped children by where they are in the curriculum rather than by age and were willing to move children up to the next level as soon as they’d mastered their current one, this wouldn’t be much of an issue.

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    This isn’t a flaw, it’s the whole point of the system! If you’re a high achiever and don’t live in an area with exam schools, you spend much of your school career in a holding pattern– never challenged, acing tests without effort, etc.

    While some children may have a temperament that makes them challenge themselves outside of school, many others think that getting As means that everything is fine – they’re not mature enough to realize that they’re stagnating.

    Really, for the kids in the top percentiles, most of Elementary school is a waste– they’d get more out of staying home, reading books, and working through math at their own pace than they do sitting in a classroom and spending 6 hours a day staring into space while the other kids learn things for the 15th time and forget them almost instantly.

    But again, this is deliberate strategy on the part of the ed-establishment. It’s easier to close the achievement gap from the top end than from the bottom end.

  3. georgelarson says:

    Could this be caused by a child’s discovery of sex, drugs and adolescence social life?

  4. It’s only in extracurriculars that kids are encouraged to move ahead as fast as possible. Once they leave the rec league (or its equivalent in other sports or endeavors), young athletes have to try out for the next level, are expected to practice on their own, will be dropped if suitable progress is not made, their playing time and postion reflects only their skill, tactics and conditioning and they are not required to remain with their age-mates. I’ve known a number of kids who “played up” one or two years and who started on the HS varsity as freshmen (in schools with 300-500 kids/grade). I’ve known vastly more kids who could have been and should have been doing honors-level HS work in all subjects at least two years before they entered HS, but were artificially restrained by their ES-MS classes and the refusal to group them homogeneously or offer acceleration. This occurred in areas where there were enough such kids that there would have been many kids in that situation.

  5. Stacy in NJ says:

    Hmm, for those of you saying high achievers are under served in the elementary years, a question: do your local public schools not track? Ours begin tracking in 3rd grade for reading and math. G&T programs are offered in 3rd grade. By 5th grade they’re almost completely tracked with the exception of “homeroom”. High achievers have access to “honors” classes beginning in 7th grade.

    I’m not buying the under served argument for most public schools. For poorly perfroming school not capable of offering those higher level courses? Yes.

    • Hah! The school for which my kids are zoned does not offer honors courses until ELEVENTH grade. Even the supposed “best” public high school in the area, where parents are paying $1M+ for homes, doesn’t start tracking any earlier.

    • Stacy-
      I’m in an area in NY with many well-regarded and high income suburban schools. I can name one that has any sort of G&T program in the elementary years, and the standard “honors” program in middle and high school around here is to be advanced a single year. There’s no real challenge until AP or IB courses, and even the teachers at my school are complaining of pressure from parents and administrators to make them less rigorous to accommodate the near doubling of enrollment in the past 5-10 years.

    • Stacy

      I’m in California. My children’s elementary school provide 2 hours per week of GATE for kids in 4th and 5th grades. The rest of their entire elementary school time is spent in heterogenous classroom, basically killing time. There is no other tracking until eighth grade when the kids are placed in leveled classes grammar and math. The classes are heterogenous for science, history and literature.

  6. Deirdre Mundy says:

    In suburban MD, the exam schools provided decent tracking, but “honors” at the regular high school level was still too easy for the kids who tended to score in the 95-99% on standardized tests… honors often means more work, but not higher-level classes.

    In my area, there’s a state exam school for high achievers in 11 and 12 grade, but it’s a boarding school, so it’s too big a leap for many families. The local high school’s honors classes are mediocre at best.

    When you’re looking at kids in the top percentage, what the school defines as “tracked” or “honors” classes aren’t actually high level enough–they often take from the top fifth of kids and are geared more to the kids in the 80-90 range than the 95+ range. (And, honestly, most kids in the 99 would be bored by classes aimed at the 95!)

    Acceleration would be an answer, but if you let a kid take AP English in 9th grade, what the heck are they going to do for the rest of their school years, especially when most schools require 4 years of English? You run into the same problem with STEM acceleration– If schools let the brightest kids work on their own level, they’d run out of classes for them.

    In my experience, most administrators see a gifted kid not as a student who deserves an education, but as a headache.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      The article indicated that the top 10% were underserved, not the top 1%. I can well imagine that the top 1 or 2% would be underserved. Honestly, in a public education setting, it’s just not realistic to expect any signficant resources be set aside for that 1%. Grade skipping and early college are options for those kids.

  7. Swords will be ruined quickly, if they are used to dig ditches or break rocks. Fine edges require honing.

  8. The idea that the talented kids will do fine on their own has been well-entrenched in the ed world for at least 25 years. Read the Washington Post education column and see the anti-elite bias there (I think they’ve done at least 10 articles on Thomas Jefferson in the past year, bemoaning its “elitism” and lack of “diversity” and many of the commenters agree). Jay Mathews has been pushing the APs for all for decades, as it pushing kids with 5th-7th-grade reading skills into AP English accomplishes anything but cheating the kids who belong in the class.

    I’m with both CW and DM on this issue. I really don’t think very smart kids are valued by ES- MS teachers and certainly not by admins. I think they feel threatened, especially the ES teachers, since the kids may well have more inherent ability than they do; serious academics don’t tend to do into ES-MS or admin jobs.

  9. The “gap” we are most concerned about is the gap between what most kids could be learning in their first 4-5 years of school and what they actually learn. Far too often, good and even average students simply are not challenged enough in K-3.

    Its a tragedy that these years, in an academic sense, are largely wasted for so many kids. They are capable of learning a lot – but they don’t. For now, its up to parents to close this “gap”, and we try to help them do that, but we still dream of a future where schools will truly aim to help every child reach their full potential from day 1.

    Its a long way off. Until then its up to Mom and Dad.

  10. Thank you, Fordham for this study. It’s about time.

    In our national effort to ‘close the gap’ of various groups needing to function at least at the average level, have we forgotten about our top students– who already function above the average? I believe we have. Our efforts, funds, and focus are just not there.

    Two examples. NCLB focuses on the students who are not yet reading, writing, and doing math and science at grade level. It does NOT focus on students who are already there, called ‘high flyers’ in this study. Special education, as well, focuses on children who remain below academic and other standards. The NCLB and IDEA are where our moneys and focus have been for the past many years–not on the ‘high flyers.’

    A 2004 study pointed out one statistic that has stuck with me: we spend 143 times as much on special education as we do on gifted and talented students–and that was BEFORE NCLB’s requirements! Has there been an update of that study?

    For America’s future, we should finally focus on ALL students: the top, middle, and bottom. Hopefully, this study will help us on our way. It is more than time.

  11. More students rose to the top 10% than descended. The top 30% remained stable, in that those who rose to the top were already in the top 30%, and those whose performance declined generally declined into the top 30%. To cite from the conclusion:

    It is important to note, however, that this out-migration from the top decile is surpassed by in-migration; in other words, a larger number of students achieve high-flyer status over time than lose it. Like those students who lost their high- achieving status, these Late Bloomers never performed far below the 90th percentile—the majority consistently ranked in the top 30 percent of students or above. They demonstrate that growth into high-achiever status is not just possible, but common for above-average students. The progress of these students begs the question: How can we improve the achievement of other students performing in the 70th and 80th percentiles?

    WHY IS THIS SURPRISING? Would you expect all of the leading 3rd graders to be the top 8th graders? It’s generally known (or can be observed) that schools which begin in later grades can select more competitive student bodies. Thus, Exeter’s student body is more competitive than a K-12 private school can be (unless the K-12 aggressively counsels out kids who can’t keep up.)

    Brain research is showing that our brains are developing into our 20s. It’s silly to think that any system ranking 8 year olds will be able to precisely predict the performance of 13 year olds.

    Rather than the “high-flyers” (on the basis of a 3rd grade test, give me a break), and the “top tenth”, it would make more sense to focus on the TOP THIRTY PERCENT. Heck, be generous, and round it out to the top third. Do not determine strict Gifted and Talented tracking on the basis of early tests (hello New York City!)

    Certainly our society needs educated professionals. Any policy which focuses on the top ten percent in third grade ignores many of the future leaders–which is probably why you will find many smart people who don’t believe in G&T programs.

    • I agree that there should be additional entry points for GATE programs so that “late bloomers” can still benefit from them. But I have a real problem with the argument that because early testing is not always perfectly reliable, that means we shouldn’t offer any GATE in the primary grades. Many kids who are identified as gifted early on will continue to stay ahead in later years.

      My DD’s IQ score at 4 nearly perfectly predicted her EXPLORE score at 8. The ACT score projected from that EXPLORE score is virtually identical to the one that would be predicted by looking at DH’s and my SAT scores.

      • Many kids who are identified as gifted early on will continue to stay ahead in later years.

        So what? Just as many who are identified as gifted early on will fall below the 90th percentile. More will rise to the 90th percentile over time (without extra G/T programming.)

        Is it fair to divert resources from everyone to serve 5% of the early top scorers? School funding is political. It is more fair to argue for a demanding curriculum for the top third of the student body, than for the top twentieth. If many of the students in the 72nd percentile in third grade have a good shot at ending up in the top 10% in 8th grade, it is unforgivable to deny those students a rich education.

        • “Is it fair to divert resources from everyone to serve 5% of the early top scorers?”

          We as a society don’t seem to have a problem diverting resources from general ed to fund special ed for kids at the opposite end of the spectrum. And it would cost very little extra to concentrate all the GATE kids into one or a handful of schools. My district operates 32 elementary schools. They could easily designate 3 of those (one each in the eastern, western, and northern parts) to be GATE schools. There would be the cost of identification, but after that, it wouldn’t cost any more to educate them than is currently being spent to keep them at their zoned schools.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Talked to a teacher of gifted HS kids recently. She said it’s unnerving to be standing in front of a room full of kids who are smarter than you are.
    But, she said, as long as they know you wish them well, they’ll be okay.
    Almost funny.
    Kids are not supposed to be ahead of the adults, the power figures. It’s not in accord with natural law. I can see it being disturbing for some folks. Like the sun rising in the northwest.
    Not everybody is suited for the work, but some of the unsuited may still have some kind of influence in the area.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      At my high school magnet program, most of the teachers had subject area master’s and PhDs. They had some sort of a waiver that let them hire people who didn’t have ed. degrees but who were smart and good at STEM, (Some of our computer teachers had industry experience, the molecular bio teacher had just come out of one of the best programs in the country— that sort of thing.)

      For many of us, it was the first time we’d had teachers who were as smart as we were and more knowledgeable in their fields than we were– these people actually LIKED it when students asked tough, in depth questions. Since we all started out in the 99th percentile, I’m sure that, based on the statistics the schools collect, the program did nothing for us. But when I arrived at college I was noticeably more prepared than my peers from regular schools where they’d always been at the top of their class. (I was average for the program I was in…)

      If schools are not able to provide oppurtunities for the top 10% due to fairness concerns, they should just admit it straight up and give the parents of gifted kids vouchers for what the state would spend on their education–I’m sure parents would find a way to pool the funds and provide a better education for their kids.

  13. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I wonder if where we fall in this debate has a lot to do with where we and our children fall in it……

    I think vouchers for all may be the best answer for the “it’s not fair to divert funding.” issue. If a school system spends about 6,000 a year to educate a gifted kid, then give the parents the 6,000 and let them opt out. A co-op of 10 gifted home-schoolers could do amazing things with 60,000!

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Of course, then the gifted kids wouldn’t be there to do their #1 job–inflating test scores even though they never receive appropriately-leveled instruction so that the school looks better than it really is…..

    • Vouchers for all would solve many problems. We’ll never see vouchers for all, though, so it’s fruitless to speculate. New exam schools would also help, but I haven’t heard of any new exam schools.

      I wonder if where we fall in this debate has a lot to do with where we and our children fall in it……

      As our state has no gifted programs, and no gifted funding, I’m not arguing from hurt feelings. Reading accounts from states and districts which do run programs with strict cut-offs, I am struck by the desperation of many parents to get their children into the programs. Looking at this study, the parents of students in the top 30% on nationally normed tests are right in lobbying to get their children into the gifted and talented programs.

      My high school (way back when) did track students, but the top track was the top 30%, not the top 5%. If enough students are in the top track, it becomes possible to build a challenging curriculum. The school needs a team of upper-level teachers, rather than a lone specialist. The top track’s courses won’t fall apart when the Gifted teacher retires.

      Many high schools these days do still offer different levels of instruction, but if placement into the upper level courses is restricted to a lucky few, the students who arrive with “Gifted and Talented” stamped on their forehead would seem to have an advantage vis-a-vis placement.

      The perception that “The Gifted” are a defined, tiny, stable group of children stands in the way of convincing schools to offer more interesting instruction. Why should they? (I believe they should, but they aren’t, and they are under extreme pressure from state and local governments to divert resources to the other side of the spectrum.) Yet, if the potential to score in the top 10% in five years is not restricted to the students who score in the top 10% today, it becomes possible to lobby for a deeper curriculum, not only enrichment.

      • I think the other benefit to looking at the top 20-30% is that it includes students that are at the top of their school, but are not in the top 5-10% of all students.
        If a student is at the 75th percentile, but the majority of the school is at the 30th percentile, they are just as likely to be ahead of instruction as a student that scores at the 95th percentile but the majority of the students at the school are at the 75th percentile.