While national reading and math tests released Thursday show students have been making slow but steady gains, some education reformers say efforts to close achievement gaps have missed an entire group of students: those who perform at an advanced level.
That's because in recent years, policy incentives and punishments for American school districts have been focused around closing the achievement gaps at the bottom end of the spectrum – bringing underperforming students up to grade level. In the most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, around a quarter of students at both grade levels and subjects are performing at a level below basic. But no more than 9 percent in any category perform at an advanced level.
Jonathan Plucker, an education professor at the University of Connecticut, says moving students toward an advanced achievement level is an issue in itself in the United States. But it's within that group of advanced students that an even larger achievement gap exists, he says. White, Asian American and more affluent students consistently perform better than African American, Hispanic and poorer students.
"Declaring victory at minimum competency, which is what our system essentially does, is just really starting to worry us a little bit," Plucker says. "How much longer can we sustain this?"
Plucker and his colleagues released a report last month on the issue that used data from the 2011 NAEP report, showing that the excellence gaps have actually increased in the era of No Child Left Behind, which shifted focus and accountability measures towards bringing low performing students up to grade level. Some of those gaps have narrowed, but the NAEP data released Thursday shows that the situation has only gotten worse for higher performing students.
In 2011, 19.2 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander students performed at an advanced level in fourth grade reading. By comparison, 9 percent of white students fell into that category. But only 1.9 percent of Hispanic and 1.1 percent of African American students did so.
In one category, eighth grade reading, the gaps appeared to be smaller. But that's only because all subgroups of students performed poorly. On the higher end, almost 8 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander students scored at an advanced level, while 4.7 percent of white, 1 percent of Hispanic and 0.7 percent of African American students did so.
"I just don't get how we could have let this happen," Plucker says. "It's just mass mediocrity. There's just no way that can be good for us moving forward."
Plucker says in terms of economic growth, a much bigger problem is the lack of excellence among students overall, as well as the achievement gaps that exist among advanced students.
"We look at these huge performance deficits at the top end," Plucker says. "Clearly our brightest black students, Hispanic students, poor students, they are not performing at high levels."
"I don't know what we're doing wrong, but we're doing something really wrong," he added.
In a time when the economy is becoming more globally competitive, Plucker says it's important to ensure there are enough high-achieving students to fill jobs that will drive the economy.
"I just don't know where all this talent is going to come from if we don't start to close these excellence gaps," Plucker says.
In states such as California and Texas, for example, where there are a large percentage of Hispanic students, no more than 2 percent in fourth and eighth grade tested at or above advanced in 2011 and no more than 2 percent of students on free or reduced lunch plans did so.
Some achievement gaps for lower performing students have narrowed in recent years: since 2011, the white-Hispanic reading gap narrowed in two states for fourth graders and in four for eighth graders, for example. But in that same time, achievement gaps for higher performing students have expanded, says Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy development at The Education Trust, an advocacy group focused on closing achievement gaps.