Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 02/ 4/2010

Achievement gap among best and brightest

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is Debra Viadero, who reports on education research for Education Week and writes a daily blog called Inside School Research.

By Debra Viadero
When it comes to achievement gaps between students of different racial, socioeconomic and gender groups, the good news in recent years has been that the distances between those groups seem to be narrowing. The bad news: Not so for everyone.

For the nation's best and brightest, a new report says, academic gaps between girls and boys, between white students and disadvantaged minority students, between poor students and their better-off peers, and between English-language learners and their English-speaking counterparts have only widened, stagnated, or declined by a hair since the late 1990s.

If present trends continue, the authors of this new report say, black 4th graders won't catch up to their white classmates on mathematics tests until 2107!

"People aren't talking about the gaps at the top," said Jonathan A. Plucker, the lead author of the study, which was released this morning by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University in Bloomington. "What they basically say is let's just focus on minimum competency gaps."

Indeed, under the federal No Child Left Behind law, states and school districts get credit for raising test scores overall and raising the test scores for particular subgroups, such as black and Hispanic students. But there's no particular incentive to pay attention to the top performers, many of whom may be hitting the ceiling on their state assessments anyway.

The center's report is not the first to point to trouble at the top. In a 2008 longitudinal study looking at black-white achievement gaps, Stanford University researcher Sean Reardon noted that the most able African-American students were the ones who lost the most ground to white students over the course of their school careers.

Likewise, the Fordham Institute in 2008 published "High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB," which pointed to stagnating improvement rates in recent years for the most advanced students.

What makes the Indiana University report a little different is that the researchers analyzed data on lots of different students from lots of different angles. They looked at assessment numbers from the late 1990s until 2007 on both national and state-level reading and mathematics tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and they looked at results from state assessments in those subjects.

(There's a nifty interactive map on the center's Web site, by the way, where you can find an "excellence-gap" profile for your own state.) The researchers also defined high achievers in different ways, looking at those who fell in the top 10 percent as well as those who scored in "advanced" categories on state or national tests.

In most cases, the trends were the same for the smartest kids. That is, with a few exceptions. In grade 8 reading, for instance, 37 states managed to shrink their gender gaps a bit.

The researchers say their findings are important because they disprove policymakers' hope that a rising tide would lift all boats. When a state narrowed gaps at the proficient level on state tests, their analysis showed, it didn't necessarily follow that the gaps at the top were reduced as well.

"In policy discussions, policymakers need to ask two specific questions," says Plucker, who is also a professor of education and cognitive science at Indiana. "They need to ask how will this specific policy affect our brightest students? And how will it help other students achieve at high levels?"


Follow Valerie's blog all day, every day by bookmarking

Follow all the Post’s Education news & blogs on our Facebook fan page, the "PostSchools" feed on Twitter or our Education home page at

By Valerie Strauss  | February 4, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Tags:  achievement gap  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Finding and using a private higher ed consultant
Next: Recess and academic achievement


This study appears to be another dud. Unless you just fell off the turnip truck, you know that SES is the primary determinate of test scores. This is partly because of the way they construct these tests and partly because of SES factors like nutrition, healthcare, maternal education and lead poisoning.

So any ethnic achievement gap has to first control for SES. If this is the usual case, very few of the White kids qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch while nearly all of the Black kids will qualify. So at best all you can do is compare White kids who qualify for free lunch with Black kids who qualify for free lunch, and so on. Otherwise its just a tautology.

Schools are not the vehicle to change the achievement gap between SES differences. The gap results from test construction, nutrition, healthcare, family environment, and other factors outside the control of the school.

The research on this kind of stuff has been done over and over for decades. I'm surprised anyone would even look at a study that didn't recognize this.

Posted by: zoniedude | February 4, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company