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Report: Low-Income, High-Ability Students Need More Support

The United States must move past its focus on minimum achievement standards for all and put more energy behind identifying and developing the talent of students who are capable of more—especially students from low-income backgrounds and students learning English, the National Association for Gifted Children said in a new directive this week.

Too often, these students "literally languish in our schools," write Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, president of the NAGC, and director of public education Jane Clarenbach in "Unlocking Emergent Talent: Supporting High Achievement of Low-Income, High-Ability Students."

The report crystallizes ideas discussed at a summit earlier this year.

Among the recommendations for educators and policymakers:


  • Expect more than proficiency from many more students through policies, funding, and practices that consistently support high expectations and high achievement.

  • Provide multiple strategies to support student achievement at the highest levels, and expand access to rigorous curriculum and supplemental services and programs.

  • Expand preservice and in-service teacher training n identifying and serving high-ability, low-income and culturally and linguistically diverse students.

  • Support emergent talent as early as possible, establishing a commitment to achievement at an early age.

  • Engage communities to support in-school learning and supplement curriculum with outside-of-school opportunities. Minimize a student's zip code and socioeconomic status as the determining factors for receiving a rigorous, high-quality education.

  • Identify successful program models and interventions that work with low-income, high-ability students from different geographical, cultural, and racial backgrounds.

  • Remove policy barriers that impede participation and access.

The report notes that while much attention is paid nationwide to narrowing the achievement gap, the fact that few students are reaching advanced levels doesn't get nearly as much ink. The writers note, for example, that the proportion of low-income students performing at advanced levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams remains "shamefully low," with only 1.7 percent of students eligible for free- or reduced-price scoring at the advanced level on the 8th grade math exam between 1998 and 2007. Meanwhile, 6 percent to 10 percent of students from higher-income families scored at that level. In addition, since 1998, 1 percent or fewer low-income 4th, 8th, and 12th graders scored at the advanced level on the civics exam, compared to at least 5 percent of their higher-income counterparts.

While still in school, not enough is done to improve or sustain top student performance, they write, and after high school, high-achieving, low-income students are less likely to attend selective colleges or graduate from college at all, compared to their high-performing peers. Too often, these students are overlooked by educators and administrators who see high performance on ability or achievement tests as the sole indication of high ability.

Besides more attention to students' ability, the report goes into some interesting detail about the psychological and emotional support talented students from minority and low-income families may need. Research on these students is limited, but has found that:

"though their identities were still being formed, successful low-income, high-ability African-American and Latino students had a strong belief in themselves and their ability to succeed through their own efforts, which often resulted from opportunities to take on and succeed in highly challenging learning experiences. Similar to factors that enable success for all high-ability students, these students had high educational and career aspirations and were extremely motivated to accomplish them. They demonstrated a strong work ethic and commitment to study. Their families were emotionally supportive and they had extended family and other adults such as teachers, coaches, mentors, and church leaders to turn to for additional support and guidance. High self-esteem gave them the confidence to actively seek advice and assistance from adults outside the family when they needed it. They had a peer network of other students with similarly high goals and commitment to academic achievement who provided psychological, emotional and social support to remain on track despite setbacks or obstacles. They were confident in their own racial identity and open to multicultural experiences, including friendships."

But many high-ability students from low-income, minority families don't have these circumstances, the report says. Grit, motivation, stereotypes, and the need for a sense of belonging can all play a pivotal role in whether these students live up to their potential.

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