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Performance Gaps Widen as High-Achieving Students Progress in High School

New research out today from The Education Trust chronicles the performance of students who start high school as high achievers and finds that students of color and from disadvantaged backgrounds, on average, graduate with lower grades, pass fewer Advanced Placement exams, and don't do as well on the ACT or SAT as their peers from wealthier, white families.

The report, "Falling out of the Lead," by the Washington, D.C.-based education and advocacy nonprofit, focused on the top quartile of students based on assessments as sophomores and followed their progress through graduation. The analysis begins by showing troubling gaps in who is studied in the first place. About one in 17 black students and one in nine Latino students perform in the top quartile, compared to about one in three white and Asian students. While 10 percent of economically disadvantaged students are the highest achievers, nearly half of wealthy students are.

"These gaps are related to differences in achievement that students bring with them to kindergarten, as well as differential preparation in elementary and middle schools that does little to close those initial gaps," the report said.

Once Ed Trust researchers tracked the high-achievers from all backgrounds in high school, they discovered widening gaps in outcomes as students progressed, depending on their backgrounds.

The average academic GPAs of high-achieving black students was a 2.90, while top performing Latino students typically earned a 2.97, and the average high-achieving white student got a 3.24. Looking at grades through a socioeconomic lens, even among top performers, there was a 0.21 GPA gap between students from lower- and upper-income families.

Other research from the University of Chicago suggests that teacher perceptions of students' work habits help explain these GPA trends, while student-reported behavior and study habits do not, the Ed Trust notes.

The new report also found high-achieving students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to take advanced science, advanced math, AP courses, or International Baccalaureate classes than their wealthier peers.

For those who do take an AP course, there are wide disparities in how those students score on the exams. While 68 percent of high-achieving white students received a score of 3 or better (considered passing), just 51 percent of Latinos and 36 percent of black students passed, the report said. About 73 percent of high-achieving students from high-income backgrounds pass their AP exams, compared to just 45 percent of those from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, Ed Trust's analysis discovered.

When it comes to the SAT or ACT, 12 percent of top-performing students white students did not take the exams, while 24 percent of high-achieving black students and 29 percent of high-achieving Latinos skipped them. About 11 percent from high-income families and 23 percent from low-income families did not take the tests. For those who did sign up, black and low-income students who were assessed as 10th graders as high achievers scored nearly 100 points lower (on a 1600-point scale) than their peers who were white and upper-income high-achievers.

"Because all students were high achieving that the outset, these gaps suggest differential learning experiences in high school," according to the report, authored by Ed Trust's Marni Bromberg and Christina Theokas.

Ed Trust notes that black and Latino students and low-income students were less likely to attend schools that offered rigorous curriculum, have adequate counseling support, or an encouraging college-going culture as did white, high-income students. The researchers suggest this contributed to gaps in outcomes among the top performers.

One piece of good news in the report: Initially high-achieving black students are as likely as high-achieving white students to enroll and attend a four-year college, although the institution may not be selective—reinforcing recent concerns about undermatching. The same cannot be said for top performing low-income or Latino students, who did not have the same college-going patterns as their white or high-income peers.

To better understand the dynamics behind the report's findings, the researchers included interviews with high-achieving, low-income students, and a principal of a successful alternative school with a diverse population where nearly all students graduate.

The Ed Trust report is based on an analysis from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 from the National Center for Education Statistics. It is part of the Shattering Expectations series that has included research on college preparation for students of color and other topics.

Further highlighting disparities in schools, last week, ACT released a report showing African-American students are not receiving the education they need to succeed in college—posting much lower scores on college-readiness benchmarks than their white counterparts.

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