National News

Educators Turn to Programs for Top Students to Narrow the ‘Excellence Gap’

Posted June 25, 2018 2:57 p.m. EDT

Consider two fifth-graders. One struggles with math, reads below grade level and has trouble turning thoughts into paragraphs. The other is a high achiever who aces tests and thinks the homework her teacher assigns is too easy.

Education reformers have focused their efforts for years on the first student, and many have been wary of creating separate, more advanced classrooms for the second. Given the United States’ ugly history of denying certain groups access to a rigorous education, why devote resources to students who presumably already do well in school, when there are so many others who are behind?

Indeed, closing the “achievement gap,” a phrase popularized by researchers in the 1960s, has been the focus of much education policy for decades. The goal has been to bring the academic performance of struggling students from low-income backgrounds, many of them black or Hispanic, up to the average level of their middle-class or more privileged peers.

Now, with test-score gaps narrowing but remaining stubbornly persistent after years of efforts, some in the education field are taking a fresh look at programs for advanced students that once made them uneasy, driven by the same desire to help historically disadvantaged groups. They are concerned not just with the achievement gap, measured by average performance, but the “excellence gap”: they hope to get more students from diverse backgrounds to perform at elite levels.

“Something started to change culturally in this country,” said Jonathan Plucker, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and one of the researchers who coined the term excellence gap. “Just to even talk about bright students was suddenly much more palatable to people,” he said.

That discussion has recently led to high-profile education policy moves. In New York earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would change the admissions process for eight of the city’s most competitive specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant and the Bronx High School of Science, to help more black and Latino students win admission. Two weeks later, the University of Chicago became the first top research university to make SAT or ACT exam scores optional rather than mandatory for admission, part of a suite of measures meant to bring in more low-income students, who tend to score less well on those tests.

Over the past two years, state legislatures in Washington, Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey and Alabama have passed bills intended to finance or improve opportunities for high-achieving students, or to make accelerated programs more diverse. And in March, the federal Department of Education announced that it would give priority to grant applications from states and localities that seek to expand and diversify their programs for gifted and talented students.

The law that governs federal education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2015, requires states to track and report the demographic breakdown of high-performing students, in order to help identify gaps. That was not required by the previous law, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Under that law, “the whole system was really designed to focus on minimum competency,” Plucker said. About four years ago, “we started to see a subtle shift” toward focusing on high-ability students.

The change occurred, in part, because No Child Left Behind’s mandate to make all children “proficient,” as measured by standardized tests, resulted in more time spent on test preparation in American schools. Teachers and parents widely disliked that push.

Still, educators and policymakers remain deeply concerned about the number of American children who remain far behind their classmates academically. Less than one-quarter of black and Hispanic eighth-graders scored at least “proficient” in reading, compared with 45 percent of whites and 55 percent of Asian-Americans, according to the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Seventy-six percent of black students and 79 percent of Hispanic students graduated high school in 2015-16, compared with 88 percent of white students.

Some research suggests that lower-achieving students do better academically when they attend classes with higher-achieving peers. But educators concerned with the excellence gap worry about ignoring the needs of advanced students, who, they say, are bored and stagnant in general-education classrooms. The educators also point to recent studies showing that black, Hispanic and poor children are less likely to be selected for advanced programs, even when they have test scores and grades similar to white and middle-class students.

The solution, according to Plucker and other advocates, is to put high-achieving and high-ability students in advanced classrooms for their strongest subjects, but not for every subject. The groupings should be more flexible than the rigid “tracking” of students in decades past, the advocates say, with many chances provided for students to gain access along the way. They say that children should be identified based on their abilities relative to their in-school peers, not on a national or state standardized test, to ensure that students from every neighborhood, race and class background have an opportunity. What to call these programs is a matter of debate. Adam Tyner, associate director of research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is an author of a report showing that students at schools serving low-income areas participate in gifted programs at half the rate of students in high-income schools. “I hate the term ‘gifted,'” he said. “Even the idea that God or nature has gifted certain students? It’s kind of offensive to me. We should call this what it is: Giving students at this level of achievement the best instruction we can give them.”

Others don’t mind the label “gifted,” but would like to see it applied to groups who have long been denied it.

“People are starting to understand the social justice issue, that children living in poverty, and from racial and ethnic and language minorities, are not getting a fair shake at getting access to gifted services,” said M. René Islas, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children and a former Department of Education official during the Bush administration.

In New York City, proposals to explicitly seek more black and Latino students for elite schools, and to consider multiple measures of ability for admission, instead of a single test score, have been controversial. Those practices are widely accepted in other parts of the country.

In Illinois, the Accelerated Placement Act, which will take effect July 1, requires school districts to use multiple factors when identifying advanced students. Selective public schools in Chicago already apportion seats through a mix of grades, test scores and demographic considerations meant to achieve socioeconomic diversity.

Some education leaders feel that the focus on advanced students is misplaced. A 2012 study of education systems around the world, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, found that nations that did less ability tracking until the ages of 15 or 16, keeping children of all abilities together longer, had higher academic performance overall.

The OECD report also cautioned against school-choice policies, like those in New York City, which allow the parents of high-achieving students to self-segregate.

It is not enough to simply reserve a small number of elite seats for disadvantaged students, said Jeannie Oakes, an emeritus professor of education at UCLA. Instead, the goal should be to “provide rich, wonderful opportunities to all kids,” she said. “This whole stratifying system doesn’t pay off for us.”

The negative effects of tracking, the OECD report noted, can be mitigated by allowing students to change tracks frequently, or to attend higher-track classes in one subject and lower-track classes in another.

All students should be screened for advanced opportunities, not just those whose parents know to request it, said Lillian Lowery, a vice president at the Education Trust, an advocacy group focused on low-income and nonwhite students. In New York City, children do not take the admission test for the city’s specialized high schools unless their families sign them up, and they are not considered for selective programs unless they apply. Many are unaware of the procedures and deadlines and miss the chance.

“Many families send their students to school just assuming that all the right things will happen, that every consideration about their best interest and access to opportunities will be tended to,” Lowery said. “And that does not happen.”