Saturday, June 21, 2008

Report Sees Cost in Some Academic Gains

I think Wilkins makes a good point in stating: “My concern is that this report makes it seem like we have to choose between seeking equity and excellence,” she said. “We need to strive for both.”

Here's the link to the full report: "High-Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind"


Published: June 18, 2008

A new study argues that the nation’s focus on helping students who are furthest behind may have produced a Robin Hood effect, yielding steady academic gains for low-achieving students in recent years at the expense of top students.

The study, to be released on Wednesday, compared trends in scores on federal tests for the bottom 10 percent of students nationwide with those for the top 10 percent and said those at the bottom moved up faster than those at the top.

In tests of fourth-grade reading from 2000 to 2007, for instance, the scores of the lowest-achieving students increased by 16 points on a 280-point scale, compared with a gain of three points for top-achieving students, according to the study, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization in Washington.

The period of big gains for low achievers and minimal ones for high achievers coincides with the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, which took effect in 2002. The study said that while it was impossible to know whether the law caused those scoring patterns, such a result would hardly be surprising, since the law made it a goal to reduce the gap separating low-scoring, poor and minority students from higher-scoring white students.

Under the law, schools are required to bring increasing percentages of students to proficiency in reading and math each year or face sanctions that can include the firing of staff members. As a result, many schools organize instruction around helping low-performing students reach minimal proficiency.

In the debate over the law, little attention has been paid to the languid growth among high-achieving students, a trend with troubling implications for the nation’s economic competitiveness.

“This is like sports,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the institute’s president, who served in the Education Department under President Ronald Reagan. “If the only goal of a sports program is to get people over a three-foot hurdle, why would anybody be coached to get over a four-foot hurdle? They wouldn’t. So those who can already sail over a three-foot hurdle have no incentive to do anything except to sleep late.”

The report included results of a survey of a nationally representative sample of 900 teachers. Seven in 10 teachers said their schools were more likely to focus on struggling students than average or advanced students when tracking achievement data and trying to raise test scores. And about three-quarters of the teachers surveyed said they agreed with this statement: “Too often, the brightest students are bored and under-challenged in school — we’re not giving them a sufficient chance to thrive.”

Amy Wilkins, a vice president at Education Trust, which lobbies for policies to help close the achievement gap, said the gains by low achievers should be applauded. “My concern is that this report makes it seem like we have to choose between seeking equity and excellence,” she said. “We need to strive for both.”

Susan Traiman, director of education policy at the Business Roundtable, a group that represents business executives, said the challenge was to improve the ability of schools to educate students across a range of levels.

“We’re producing progress at the bottom, and we need to maintain that,” Ms. Traiman said, “but we need to ratchet up the performance of students at every achievement level if we’re going to be competitive.”

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