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Top Students' Achievement Falls During High School Transition

Students who performed well on sixth grade tests didn't necessarily maintain that level by 10th grade.

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A large number of America's highest-performing middle school students regress during high school, according to a new study released Tuesday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational research firm.

The institute followed 120,000 students at more than 1,500 schools as they studied the transition between elementary school and middle school and the transition between middle school and high school. The elementary school study followed third graders starting in 2004 and followed them through the end of their eighth grade year in 2009. The high school study followed sixth graders starting in 2005 through their 10th grade year in 2010.

About 30 percent of students who scored in the 90th percentile or higher on a math exam in sixth grade fell below that threshold by 10th grade. More troubling, almost half of "high flyers" in middle school reading fell below the 90th percentile by 10th grade.

"Once a student's capacity for high achievement is established, the school's objective should be to ensure that that student maintains an upward trajectory," the study's authors wrote. "Every casualty among this group is a loss in potential human capital."

The study found that high-performing students who fell below the 90th percentile ("descenders") generally didn't regress too far. Most remained above the 70th percentile in 10th grade.

The study acknowledged that life changes, such as a divorce or death in the family, might affect some students' scores, and that it's inevitable that some students' performances will fall off.

"Some will surely lose altitude," the authors wrote. "But if a great many of them do so, this should set off alarm bells."

The study wasn't all bad news. There were 4.3 percent more students who were high-achievers in high school math compared to the number who reached that mark in middle school. This can be attributed to "late bloomers" who scored below the 90th percentile cutoff in sixth grade, but increased their score above that threshold by 10th grade.

Although minorities were underrepresented among high achievers, high-performing minorities tended to stay more stable than high-performing white students. Boys' performances suffered more often than girls' performances during the middle-to-high school transition, as the proportion of high-achieving girls grew from 49.8 percent to 52.6 percent in reading and from 39 percent to 41.7 percent in math.

The study expanded on previous research by the institute that found the performance of high-achieving students largely stagnated while the achievement of the lowest-performing students increased, perhaps due to No Child Left Behind's focus on "leveling" student achievement.

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