Although the nation's lowest-performing students have made great progress in the No Child Left Behind era of testing, the top students are not making similar strides, according to a report by the Fordham Institute.
The trend in Maryland mirrors the nation, said Tom Loveless, a Brookings Institution researcher who helped write the report for Fordham.
Students who scored in the 90th percentile and above are making the least progress on national standardized tests.
While the report's authors are careful to say they found no evidence that the landmark education law passed in 2002 has hindered the progress of talented students, the report does raise questions about whether the law is putting too much emphasis on bringing up the bottom tier of struggling students.
"If we want our highest-achieving kids to do better and to compete with other high-achieving kids around the world, then we have to make sure our incentive programs do that," said Loveless, who analyzed the test data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The NAEP has been given for decades and is the only national test that can measure progress in individual states as well as the country as a whole. He found, for instance, that nationwide, fourth-grade reading scores for the poorest-performing students have risen 16 points since 2000 compared with only three points for the top students.
No Child Left Behind requires school systems across the nation to test students in math and reading and penalizes schools that do not have an increasing number of students passing the test each year. Loveless believes that there ought to be rewards for schools that improve the test scores of high-ability students.
Fordham, a Washington, D.C., think tank, has been generally supportive of No Child Left Behind. Concerned about how high-achieving students have fared under the law, it has initiated several research reports on the subject. The first two are being released today.
Besides looking at NAEP scores, two other researchers surveyed teachers who said they gave more attention to their struggling students.
"I think [NCLB] is clearly hurting high-ability kids," said Linda Brody, at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. Many school systems have done away with ability grouping, she said. Teachers now teach to the middle, and when there is money available, it goes to support students who are struggling. "For the kids who are doing well, they often have to sit through it and do it again," she said. "I think we are really missing the boat with these kids." Some of the major school systems in Maryland, including Baltimore and Howard counties, do group students by ability from their elementary years on, but others don't.
The report found that states that had statewide testing in place the longest, such as Maryland, which started in the mid-1990s before the passage for NCLB, had the most marked differences in the growth of low- and high-achieving students.
In Maryland, that meant that the lowest-performing fourth-graders gained 23 points on the NAEP from 2000 to 2007, while the highest-performing group gained only nine points.
In part, the differences in the scores may be a reflection of a testing phenomenon that it is harder to raise the highest-level students than the lowest level.
But even so, those reacting to the report yesterday said they believed there was little question that more attention was being given to the lower-performing students.
"I believe we don't invest enough and challenge enough the academically prepared students," said state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
She said schools around the state are often focused only on whether their students pass the test rather than whether they achieved the advanced level. "I am saying that you ought to look at advanced and not be satisfied with proficient," she said. She said offering more to talented students doesn't have to be done at the expense of the students who need to be brought up to standards.
Grasmick said in the past several years school systems have put more emphasis on offering many Advanced Placement and International Bacalaureate classes, which has helped challenge the highest level students. The NAEP does not test students in high school.
A second portion of the Fordham report focused on teacher perceptions of who got attention in their schools. A national teacher survey showed that 60 percent of teachers said struggling students were the top priority in their school. A large percentage also said those students get more one-on-one attention, even though they believe that all students should be treated equally.
The results were not surprising to Maryland teachers. "When you are in a high-stakes, high-pressure environment, you have to make some tough choices," said Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the Maryland State Teachers Association. "It is not surprising that you would see some of the biggest gains among the lowest performers."