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Study Finds 'Excellence Gaps' Growing for Top Students

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, 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 Act, 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 anyway on their state assessments.

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 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 most advanced kids. That is, with a few exceptions. In 8th grade 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 IU. "They need to ask how will this specific policy affect our brightest students? And how will it help other students achieve at high levels?"

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