High-Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind

June 18, 2008

Tom Loveless examines achievement trends for high-achieving students (defined by their performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP) in a report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Included in this report are results from a national teacher survey, by Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett of Farkas Duffett Research Group.

In 1972, Commissioner of Education Sidney P. Marland Jr. presented a report to Congress on the education of gifted and high-achieving children in the United States. The Marland Report argued that America had too few challenging programs to meet the needs of its high-achieving students. Just fifteen years earlier, the Russian launch of Sputnik had led to a flurry of programs promoting mathematics and science. Within a few years, however, these programs were eclipsed by a focus on societal inequities—especially those related to race and poverty—and efforts were launched to eradicate similar inequalities in U.S. schools. Gifted programs came under fire for being elitist. Some dwindled away from lack of funding. In addition to urging that gifted programs address a broad array of talents and abilities, the Marland Report warned Congress that bright minority students are particularly vulnerable:

Intellectual and creative talent cannot survive educational neglect and apathy. This loss is particularly evident in the minority groups who have in both social and educational environments every configuration calculated to stifle potential talent.1

Attitudes toward bright children have waxed and waned over the decades. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 sought to fuse equity and excellence into a single initiative, promoting academic achievement in the pursuit of equity.2 Historically, the federal government provided additional revenue to schools serving disadvantaged children, ostensibly so that schools could offer services that would help poor children learn. The architects of NCLB sought to transform the federal education dollar from a school entitlement into an incentive to prod schools towards better performance.3 Universal proficiency became the nation’s foremost education goal.

Incentives shape behavior. Some analysts today express the concern that, by focusing attention on the education of students at the bottom of the achievement distribution, NCLB is surely encouraging schools to neglect high achievers. After all, schools face consequences for failing to move lowachieving students to proficiency. Students in schools that fail to make adequate progress for two consecutive years must be offered the option of transferring to another public school. A school that continues to fall short faces possible replacement of its teaching staff, conversion to a charter school, or state takeover. Nothing, however, happens when schools fail to boost the learning of already-proficient students to higher levels. As Susan Goodkin argued in the Washington Post, “By forcing schools to focus their time and funding almost entirely on bringing low achieving students up to proficiency, NCLB sacrifices the education of the gifted students who will become our future biomedical researchers, computer engineers, and other scientific leaders.”4

Are these concerns well founded? Do the incentives of NCLB create a Robin Hood effect, yielding gains for low-achieving students but at the expense of high achievers? That’s what we set out to investigate.

Read the full report » 

Read Tom Loveless’s Response to Gregory Camilli’s Review »

1 Sydney Marland Jr., Education of the Gifted and Talented—Volume 1: Report to the Congress of the United States by the U. S. Commissioner of Education (Washington, DC: Office of Education, 1971), 6.
2 Equity and excellence are two major themes of school reform. See Tom Loveless, “Uneasy Allies: The Evolving Relationship of School and State,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 20, no.1 (1998): 1–8.
3 Tom Loveless, “The Peculiar Politics of No Child Left Behind,” in Standards-Based Reform and the Poverty Gap: Lessons for No Child Left Behind, ed. A. Gamoran (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2007), 253–85.
4 Susan Goodkin, “Leave No Gifted Child Behind, Washington Post, December 27, 2005, A25.

Reprinted with permission from The Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 1016 16th St NW, 8th Floor, Washington, DC 20036. All rights reserved.”