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No Child Left Behind? How Schools Neglect High Achievers

A new study shows that by focusing so much on bringing low achievers to proficiency, we're stunting the potential of academically advanced kids.

For the past decade, closing the achievement gap and ensuring no child is left behind has dominated the education reform conversation. But what happens to the already high-achieving students—the gifted ones reading far above grade level? The latest study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute shows that over the long haul, these students have a tough time maintaining their stellar achievement track records and often fail to improve academically.

Conducted by analysts from Northwest Evaluation Association, the study examined more than 120,000 students attending more than 1,500 schools nationwide. By following the progress of one group of students in both reading and math from third to eighth grade, and a second group's progress from sixth to 10th grade, the researchers found that nearly half failed to maintain their elite academic performance.

Part of the problem high-achieving students face is that many schools are so focused on achieving proficiency on standardized tests that they forget about the students seeking to truly excel. Depending on the test, proficiency may require only answering 50 to 70 percent of the questions correctly. Students, including those that are academically gifted, are applauded for hitting that relatively low mark, which can show them that nothing greater is expected and thus accidentally encourage them to stop pushing themselves.

In addition, thanks to No Child Left Behind, schools face serious consequences—like being shut down or having the entire staff fired—if they fail to boost low-achieving students up to that proficiency benchmark. Budget cuts have reduced special programs for academically advanced kids and class sizes have increased, so there's only so much a single teacher can do to meet the needs of all students. That means high-achieving students that are already at or above proficient end up not receiving the attention they need to excel further.

The study's authors recommend reintroducing supports for the most gifted students and reforming the proficiency measures and consequences in NCLB. With the bill up for re-authorization, taking the needs of gifted students into account is essential. After all, stunting the potential of academically advanced students is just as wrong as allowing struggling students to continue to fail.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user West Point Public Affairs

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