Efforts to raise achievement for low-performing students don't necessarily hold back the high-flyers in a class, but peers can affect when and whether high-achieving students take challenging courses, according to new studies discussed at the Association for Education Finance and Policy's annual conference here Thursday.
Eric Parsons, of the Economic and Policy Analysis Research Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia, tracked more than 70,000 Missouri students from grades 3—often the start of gifted and talented programs in district—through grade 9, to understand what led initially high-performing students to thrive or falter in later grades.
While some prior critiques of state and federal accountability systems have suggested a focus on the lowest-performing students can minimize resources for higher-performing peers, Parsons found students who started grades 3 and 4 in the top 10 percent of their class in mathematics were more likely to continue to succeed into high school if they attended schools in which the lowest-achieving 10 percent of students were also succeeding. An early-achiever was 9 percent more likely to keep that "high flyer" status in a school whose low-performing students scored one standard deviation above the mean in math than in a school whose low-performing students scored one standard deviation below the mean.
"Holding overall school quality constant, the schools that are doing well with the low-performing students are also doing well for the high-performing kids," Parsons said. "It looks like improving schools overall will do a lot to improve high flyers, too."
While top students' overall academic performance didn't suffer from attention paid to their struggling classmates, Parsons did find that attending a school with more concentrated poverty delayed their entrance into a key "gatekeeper" class, Algebra I. Students who started in the top 10 percent of math performers in 3rd and 4th grades might reasonably be expected to study advanced math early, but those in schools with higher-than-average poverty took required Algebra I courses on average three-tenths of a year later than peers in less-disadvantaged schools.
Parsons suggested that schools with both high poverty and low achievement may be more likely to cut back on the number of advanced courses or delay them until later years, and "high-achieving students get caught up in that" even if their teachers acknowledge that they are ready for the more rigorous class.
That problem may help explain two separate studies of growth in Advanced Placement courses, which noted continuing participation gaps among poor and minority students.
In one, Nat Malkus of the American Institutes of Research studied data during a broad expansion of the Advanced Placement program, from 1980 to 2011. He found that while the number of students taking AP exams has grown 9 to 12 percent since 1980, growth in the number of schools offering AP classes has increased only 3 to 4 percent.
Moreover, a separate study of AP classes in Broward County, Fla. public schools, by Patrice Iatarola and Taek Hyung Kim of Florida State University, found that the concentration of students in poverty did not reduce a student's chances of passing an AP exam within a school, though it was associated with lower passing rates when comparing one school to another. That suggests that a school's poverty reduced its likelihood of offering advanced courses, but that poor students enrolled in an Advanced Placement course didn't necessarily "dumb down" the level of instruction for other students.