Does the accountability movement hurt top students? That’s the question behind a new report from the Fordham Foundation on “High Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind.” The answer is that while high-achieving students have not seen their test scores fall, few teachers feel that their intellectual growth is a top priority. NCLB – the federal education law created in 2001 – is closing the achievement gap. But the results of the Fordham study raise the question of whether that was a good goal for such a far-reaching piece of legislation.
For the Fordham report, authors Tom Loveless, Steve Farkas, and Ann Duffett looked at how students in the 90th percentile and the 10th percentile scored on the NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or “the nation’s report card”) over the past few years. They also surveyed teachers about their time and priorities.
While some of the test scores are murky, there are a few pronounced results. From 2000 to 2007, 4th grade reading scores rose 3 points for students at the 90th percentile, and 16 points for students at the 10th. In 8th grade math, NAEP scores rose 5 points for students at the 90th percentile, and 13 for students at the 10th. An analysis of states that implemented accountability programs prior to 2000 found that for 4th grade math scores, students at the 90th percentile gained an average of 1.6 points, while students at the 10th percentile gained 5.7 points. Among a comparison group of states without accountability programs, 90th percentile students gained 2.5 points, and students at the 10th percentile gained 1.9 points.
In plain words, this means that when accountability programs are put in place, scores for high-achieving students stay flat. Scores for lower achieving students rise. This causes the achievement gap to close – which was precisely the point of NCLB.
A flat score does not constitute being “hurt.” However, the survey responses from teachers painted a more nuanced picture of how NCLB and accountability programs influence the classroom experience. Among the key findings:
While some teachers have long had concerns about acceleration, the preference for subject matter vs. full grade acceleration may also be a function of NCLB. A 4th grader who goes to 6th grade for math could still be counted as a 4th grader (with her scores bringing up the school average). A 4th grader who moves to 6th grade for all subjects would count in the 6th grade average.
The accountability movement does seem to be raising struggling students’ test scores. This is a good thing. Gifted advocates should try to figure out ways that the good parts of the accountability movement can be sustained, while changing the incentives in such a way that schools will want to help high achievers do their best. These are a few ideas:
View the report here: https://edexcellence.net/publications/high-achieving-students-in.html?v=publication
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