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Questions Raised About 'High-Flyers' Study

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Are high-achieving and gifted students being hurt by all of the attention on the lowest-performing students?

Pretty much, according to researchers at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in a report last month called "Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude". For that study, they tracked the individual scores of one group of nearly 82,000 students on the Measures of Academic Progress tests. They found that, of the 10,166 students who scored at the 90th percentile or above in math as 3rd graders in 2008, only 57.3 percent scored as well by the time they were 8th graders. The data came from the Northwest Evaluation Association, which makes the MAP test.

Fordham experts wondered if No Child Left Behind contributed to the students' decline.

"Is helping kids at the bottom hurting kids at the top?" Fordham's Mike Petrilli told me, acknowledging that discussing that point can be difficult, but arguing that it's necessary. "Let's be honest about the trade-offs. It doesn't make you a bad person or a racist."

But at least two groups find fault with the analysis from Fordham, which hosted a discussion of its findings Monday.

Naomi Chudowsky and Victor Chudowsky of Caldera Research, who are consultants to the Center on Education Policy, say the institute spun the results of its own study to make a point the results don't quite show.

In a brief paper, they point out that the researchers behind the Fordham study found that the pool of high-achieving students did not shrink overall, though some high-achieving students lost ground over time. "On the contrary, it grew, thanks to a greater number of students—we call them the "late bloomers"—who entered the high-achieving ranks over time."

(Caldera Research, also took issue with Education Week's headline on the story about the Fordham report. It read "Many Early Achievers Lose Academic Edge, Researchers Conclude.")

"The Fordham/NWEA study focuses on the top performers over time, and some of the alarm is derived from the fact that there is substantial turnover in this group over five or six years," the pair wrote in response to the study. "But if the SAME students do not rank in the 90th percentile consistently, is that really bad news? Would a better outcome for Fordham be one where the top 10 percent in 4th grade maintained the exact same ranking in grade eight? That a substantial number of students are able to improve their standing over time, beating their peers, seems like good news to us."

The Center for American Progress had other concerns with the Fordham report.

"The research tracked individual students over time from school year 2005 to 2010 and found that many high-achieving students struggle to maintain their performance and often don't improve their reading ability at the same rate as their average and below-average peers. This is an issue. No question," wrote the Center's Ulrich Boser and Diana Epstein last week. "But Fordham interpreted the study to say that the federal No Child Left Behind law might have caused high-flying students to do worse over time, even though the researchers didn't look at that issue. All of Fordham's data came from the post-NCLB time period, so without a pre-NCLB comparison, there is no way to make a claim that NCLB caused the decline."

The debate over reforming NCLB, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Reauthorization Act, is raging in Congress right now. The Center for American Progress agrees that it needs an overhaul, but that doesn't mean low achievers should be ignored.

"We agree with both the Fordham Institute—and [American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick] Hess—on a variety of school reform issues. Most notably, we agree that the No Child Left Behind Act is in serious need of repair. The law requires schools to implement improvement strategies that are not strong enough to help them get better over time. Schools also get zero credit for making academic growth. Both of these areas need to be addressed by Congress," they wrote. "But that does not mean that we should neglect our lowest achievers or our massive achievement gaps. Indeed, our lowest achievers need the most help—and offer the most potential for growth."

Also weighing in was K5 Learning, an online after-school study program for kids in kindergarten to 5th grade.

They found a different message in the Fordham results—an entirely separate cause for alarm.

"In this massive study of tens of thousands students, children who performed in the bottom third in reading or math in grade 3 had less than a 1 percent chance of being high achievers by grade 8. Even average students in grade 3, (between 40 and 60 percentile) had less than a 5 percent chance of becoming high achievers later," they wrote recently on their blog. A high achiever in grade 3 math was 17 times more likely to be a high achiever in grade 8 than your average grade 3 student, and 142 times more likely than someone who was performing in the bottom third of students in grade 3. The results were broadly similar for reading.

Granted, K5 is in the business of selling after-school tutoring of a sort. But they crunched the Fordham numbers to draw their own conclusions:

"Kids performing in the 60 [percentile] to 70 percentile range in grade 3 had about a[n] 8 [percent] to 9 percent chance of becoming high achievers by grade 8, still six to seven times less likely than the stars in grade 3."

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