Ahhh there they go again. Our friends over at the Fordham Institute weren’t very impressed with BoardBuzz’s analysis of their high-achieving students study. Actually it wasn’t what BoardBuzz said about the study, but our analysis of their rhetoric. As a reminder, BoardBuzz took exception to Fordham’s claim that high achieving students are being left behind. On its blog, Fordham responded by saying:
Yes, if you go back to the early 1990s, the progress of low and high achievers look roughly the same, at least in some subject-grade combinations. But upon closer inspection the story is very different. Basically the 90s were quite good for high achievers (particularly in states without accountability systems); the post-2000 years have been quite good for low achievers (perhaps due to NCLB). The story since 2000, though, is straightforward; anemic gains at the top versus dramatic gains at the bottom .
BoardBuzz has this question to Fordham: How much do students need to improve for the gains to be considered “dramatic” instead of “anemic”? Or for that matter, “good”?
So, yes let’s take a closer look at the gains students were making before and after 2000, specifically 8th grade math. From 2000 to 2007 high-achieving students on average improved 5 points on NAEP. Not as large as the 13 point average gains made by low achieving students, but anemic? BoardBuzz doesn’t think so. Consider this: Tom Loveless, the author of the Fordham report, says a good rule of thumb is that 11 points on NAEP is roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of learning. Simply, 5 points means high achieving 8th graders in 2007 are learning close to a half a year’s worth more math than high achieving students did in 2000. And this is “anemic” or “languid” as the Fordham report calls it?
Between 1990 and 2000, high-achieving 8th graders did make 13 point gains, which is higher than the 5 point gain post-2000, as Fordham observes. But keep in mind that’s 13 points over a 10 year period. When looking over similar period of time, 1990-1996, 8th graders made an 8-point gain in math — not much higher than the 5 point gain between 2000 and 2007.
Fordham also took issue with BoardBuzz’s contention that schools were not focusing on so-called “bubble kids” students who score near the proficient cut off line — at the expense of very low and very high achieving students. They point to their report The Proficiency Illusion, which found that most states define proficiency at the 20th or 30th percentile nationally to claim that bubble kids are actually the very low achievers their study focuses on.
Fortunately, BoardBuzz has read The Center for Public Education’s latest report The Proficiency Debate: A guide to NAEP achievement levels and knows that although states do vary in where they set their proficiency levels, most are within NAEP’s Basic Achievement Level. The report also shows that of the students who score at the Basic level on NAEP half go on to earn a four-year college degree so it’s not exactly a very low level to hit despite its label.
Even so, BoardBuzz applauds Fordham for focusing on the issue of high achieving students in the era of NCLB. NSBA is concerned, as well, that accountability systems such as NCLB do not focus enough attention on high achieving students. School board members across the country may find the Fordham study useful in drawing attention to the high achieving students in their districts. However, they should also take pride in that their schools have made dramatic gains for their lowest performing students while continuing gains for their highest achievers as well. Could their high achievers have made more gains? It is impossible to tell, but studies like this highlight the fact that teachers need more support and resources to be as effective as they can be for all their students.