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New Data Show Why We Need to Start Early to Keep Kids From Falling Behind

Great new report from ACT (a Bellwether client) and the National Center for Educational Achievement looks at longitudinal data from ACT and Arkansas State Assessments to try to assess the likelihood that a child who is not on track for college and career readiness in 4th or 8th grade will get back on track four years later.

The results are sobering: Among students who were "far off track" in reading in 8th grade, only 10 percent achieved college and career ready standards four years later. In math and science, the percentage was even lower. And over 40 percent of African American students taking ACT's EXPLORE exam in 8th grade scored "far off track" in reading--as did 50% in math and 74% in Science. Put that together and you can't like those odds. The research also shows that schools can make a difference: "Far off track" 8th graders who attended schools in the top 10 percent of performance were roughly 3 times as likely to get back on track by 12th grade as the total sample. But even looking at the top 10 percent of schools, the percentage of "far off track" students getting back on track never exceeded 30%.

One might assume that this is because it's particularly difficult to catch up middle school students once they fall behind, and that elementary students might be easier to get caught up. But, while the percentage of 4th graders scoring "far off track" was lower than the percentage of 8th graders doing so, the percentage of "far off track" youngsters who had caught up 4 years later wasn't much better.

All of this underscores the critical importance of minimizing the numbers of children who fall off track in the first place. This means high-quality pre-k and early childhood education, particularly for African American, Hispanic, low-income, and other children from groups with higher percentages of students falling behind in school. It also means establishing effective and aligned PreK-3rd instructional strategies designed to ensure that children master reading and the fundamentals of math by the time they finish 3rd grade. And it requires timely diagnosis and intervention for children who are struggling in the early grades--so that they can get extra help to master critical knowledge and skills before they fall behind.

One final note about this study: We need more research like this that tracks the experience and achievement of individual students over time, as opposed to looking at snapshots. The annual assessments and longitudinal data systems that states have implemented over the past decade facilitate much more of this type of analysis--which is critical to understand how our schools are and aren't serving students over time. But most of our conversation still tends to focus on snapshots, schools, and broader subpopulations of students, rather than really looking at the patterns of kids' educational experiences over time. That's true in a range of issues, from how we talk about charter schools' impact on student achievement to how we talk about teacher effectiveness and distribution of effective teachers. But if we really want to know what's happening, we need to--and increasingly, we can--spend more time looking at, thinking, and talking about individual kids' experiences over time.

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