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Why is the U.S. Prioritizing Minimum Competency?

Note: Jonathan Plucker, a professor at Indiana University and the director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, is guest-posting this week.

When historians discuss early 21st century American education, I'm convinced they will pinpoint our decision to focus almost exclusively on minimum competency as an educational and economic turning point. And by "turning point," I mean that they will ask, "What on earth were they thinking?"

Let me be clear: I'm not saying that getting every third grader to at least a third grade reading level is unimportant. To the contrary, getting 100% of our students to minimal competency in ALL subject areas is a moral imperative. But I'm not convinced basic proficiency should be the whole of national and state education policy.

Rather, our objectives should be educational excellence--and equal opportunity for educational excellence--goals we have largely ignored over the past decade.

I'm not referring to the number of American students performing at the advanced level on national and international tests, although we have fewer students performing at the highest levels of PISA and TIMSS than other countries. We should instead be concerned about the differences at the advanced levels between groups of students in the U.S., which we've labeled "excellence gaps."

As a case in point, if I told you that, within one state, only 1% of students in a racial group making up over half the population scored advanced on a national math test, you'd find that hard to swallow. If I told you that group was also the fastest growing segment of students, that 1% would become even more glaring. How can we compete with other nations in an innovative, global context if so few of our students are performing at advanced levels?

That state has a name: California. Over 50% of California public school students are Hispanic, yet on the 2011 NAEP Grade 4 Math test, only 1% of Hispanic and Black students scored at the advanced level, compared to 19% of Asian and 12% of White students. Long-term trends do not lead to optimism: in 2005, 2007, and 2009, the advanced rate was 1% for Hispanic students in California. I suppose this is progress, as in 2003 the advanced rate rounded to zero.

Large, persistent excellence gaps are found in every state, in nearly every data set my colleagues and I have examined. If you'd like to ruin a good mood, take a look at advanced passing rates and excellence gaps in Grade 8 Reading and Grade 4 Science. The excellence gaps are smaller ... but only because the top-performing groups aren't doing as well. Yikes!

Excellence gaps by socioeconomic status are even more depressing. At the national level, only 2% of public and private students participating in the National School Lunch Program scored at the highest level in Grade 4 Math last year, much less than the 12% rate for more affluent students. Many states had similar gaps among public students, such as Maryland (3% vs. 19%) and Massachusetts (4% vs. 19%). Again, these huge excellence gaps have proven to be remarkably durable over the years, in many cases growing over time.

I generally hear the same responses when I share these data with policymakers and advocates, but all of which sound like excuses: "Bright kids will take care of themselves" is the oddest reply; given that these data show that bright Hispanic and Black students are clearly not rising to the top by themselves (not to mention the almost 50% of Grade 4 students who took the Math NAEP exam who qualify for free/reduced lunch. That's not a typo--nearly 50%). Another interesting response is that "a rising tide raises all ships." Our studies and others suggest that simply isn't the case. We've allowed our country to create a permanent talent underclass, and the demographic groups most prevalent in that underclass are the fastest growing segments of our society.

Our society prides itself on being a meritocracy that values innovation and entrepreneurship. But that meritocracy is only accessible to a specific group of Americans, one shrinking relative to the total population. Where is the sense of urgency on this issue?

I was in California recently for a great conference on innovation in education, and I asked a Hispanic education activist "Where's the outrage?" He paused thoughtfully then said, "The Latino community just doesn't know about this, they don't know how bad things are for these students." He suggested that community education was the best intervention, but then he noted that it was hard to find funding for (and create a sense of urgency about) as compelling a problem as Latina teen pregnancy prevention efforts.

He was on to something, though: that which is not visible is by definition invisible. At the very least, let's get these data into our conversations about education reform. It costs almost nothing to include data on advanced performance when we release national and state test scores to the public. Let's resolve to spread the word: in the United States, excellence matters, regardless of your skin color, whether you live in poverty, or who your parents are.

That's a lofty ideal, but one that Americans should be able to get behind.

--Jonathan Plucker

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