Education: A Golden Age

“The education sector’s structure and policies will change more in the next 3 years than they changed in the last 2,500 years”

No Child Left Behind and high-achieving students


Laura Vanderkam,

“This week, the Fordham Institute released a new report on “High Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind.”

For the Fordham report, authors Tom Loveless, Steve Farkas, and Ann Duffett looked at how students in the 90th percentile and the 10th percentile scored on the NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or “the nation’s report card”). They particularly focused on scores since 2002, which is roughly when the current national focus on accountability began. They also surveyed teachers about their time and priorities.

This is the major finding: Congress passed NCLB with the goal of narrowing the achievement gap. That has, in fact, happened over the past 5-6 years. Here is why it has happened: lower-achieving students have made fairly large gains on the NAEP. High-achieving students have made small gains. Consequently, the achievement gap has been closing.

The bigger question, of course, is whether this is something to be celebrating, and whether Congress set the right goal.

In education, there is always a fundamental tension between excellence and equity. As Americans, we really like both concepts. We want all students to achieve more in the future than they do now, and we also want some students not to lag too far behind others. But these are conflicting goals. If all student scores were rising on the NAEP at a fast clip, the achievement gap would stay the same. In fact, if all student scores rose by 10%, this would expand the achievement gap (a student scoring 200 would go to 220, a 300 to 330, expanding the gap from 100 to 110). This means that, fundamentally, we have to choose which of the goals of excellence and equity is most important.

The Fordham report gives data on what we have, apparently chosen. I want to stress that it does show something important: NCLB has not, per se, hurt the highest achieving children on an objective test measurement standard. Scores are relatively flat. The NAEP (like an out-of-level test — e.g. giving the SAT to 7th graders) allows for a full spectrum of scores to show up. So this is not the case of a consistent 99th percentile grade-level score masking a decline in achievement that a blunt test can’t pick up.

But the authors did also survey teachers, and found something that is also salient. Some 60% of teachers said low achievers were a “top priority” at their schools, and 23% said high achievers were (teachers could give more than one answer). Asked about who was likely to receive more one-on-one attention, 81% of teachers said struggling students were, with only 5% saying advanced students were.

We don’t really have data of how teachers felt in the past. But it is clear that in this era of accountability, NCLB and other policies have designated our national priority: raising the test scores of low-achieving students. Everything else is secondary.

It is, of course, a worthy goal to raise low scores. On the other hand, a teacher’s one-on-one attention is a zero-sum game. If it’s going to low achievers, it’s not going to high achievers. So basically, as a nation, we have made a choice to let high achievers coast. This shows up in the NAEP scores.

I — and many readers of this blog, I’m sure — am not terribly comfortable with this national choice. I’ve long advocated taking the basic concept of accountability and applying it to individual students, rather than schools. That way, no one can hide behind averages on a grade-level test that make it more critical for a kid on the border of proficient to become proficient than for a high-achieving student to excel. From my first read of the Fordham report, I think we can start making a case in public policy spheres that we should change NCLB’s mission from closing the achievement gap to raising the achievement of all students (really meaning “no child”). It does us little good to make sure everyone is capable of reading a ballot and balancing a checkbook if we can’t also produce engineers and doctors and programmers and the like. Equality is not a useful end goal in itself. Excellence is.


2008/06/25 - Posted by | Policy

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