Education Reform May Leave High-Performing Students Behind

With a focus on closing gaps among low-performing students, gaps among high performers have grown.

Some say a focus on closing achievement gaps among low-performing students has left higher achievers behind.

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But some see the debate of equity versus excellence as an "either-or" situation, where only one side can win.

Hall says some schools have succeeded in serving low income and minority students, by not just bringing them to a proficient level, but also accelerating their skills into an advanced level of achievement.

"This notion that it's an 'either-or' is absolutely a false choice and it's a harmful choice," Hall says. "While we need to recognize the success we've made, we can't for a minute rest on our laurels."

Hall says one way to do that is to provide greater incentives for effective teachers to move to, and more importantly stay in, schools with high levels of impoverished and minority students. Additionally, Hall says schools need to evaluate how well they are providing access to challenging courses and academic opportunities for higher achieving students.

But Plucker says simply making modifications to state accountability systems, such as allowing them to include measures of how many students move from proficient to advanced achievement levels, would have a noticeable impact.

"It's hard to hold it against anyone that they don't focus on getting more students to score in that excellent range when everything that they're rewarded for, that they're punished for, that they're told to focus on is minimum competency," Plucker says.

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Hall and Plucker agree that both achievement gaps are and should be points of concern for educators and policymakers, but they require different responses. One simple change educators and researchers could make to help improve achievement gaps at the top end of the spectrum is to increase awareness, Plucker says.

"Our students in those bottom groups, some of those estimates ... should be inexcusable for everyone in this country, but there's never very much outrage about it," Plucker says. "If we never talk about it, if we never expose the public to it, if policymakers never see it in these press releases and reports, then by definition these kids become invisible."

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