Excellence Gap

Much of education policy in Connecticut has focused on the goal of shrinking  the "achievement gap," the difference between, for example, students living in poverty versus those who are not. However, this gap is better characterized as a minimum competency gap—i.e., the difference between groups at low benchmarks of achievement.

Starting in 2010, the Indiana University Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) began to quantify evidence on a comparable "excellence gap" at the other end of the spectrum—group differences at high levels of achievement across the United States.  CEEP's latest report found that achievement gaps among high ability students from different economic, racial and linguistic backgrounds in the U.S. are large and growing, and some of the top achieving groups aren't performing as well as in the past.

CEEP defines the "excellence gap" as the difference in the proportion of students in different demographic groups who score at the advanced level on student achievement tests. Their report analyzed the state-by-state results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), nicknamed "The Nation's Report Card," which assesses subject-matter knowledge for students in grades four, eight and 12 across the country, as well as state assessments.  It found that lower socio-economic demographic groups. as well as English Language Learners and Hispanic and Black students, were underrepresented at the highest levels of academic achievement, far below their counterparts.

Mind the (Other) Gap

The original report report estimated it could take 72 years to close the gap between whites and Hispanics in grade four mathematics; 31 years to close the gap between whites and blacks; and 128 years to close the gap between grade four English Language Learners (ELL) and non-ELL students.

"Our entire national conversation about education [in the age of No Child Left Behind] has focused on struggling students," said Jonathan Plucker, the report's lead author and the CEEP director. "Although helping these students is important, clearly we can also focus some energy on higher levels of achievement."

Continually, in Connecticut (and across the country), the achievement gap conversation has almost exclusively focused on bringing socio-economically disadvantaged populations up to minimum proficiency levels, ignoring opportuntiy for students from diverse backgrounds who should be performing at higher academic levels at comparable percentages to their more affluent peers.

"I think the evidence is pretty clear that we have a very long way to go when it comes to ensuring equal opportunities for all high-ability students," said Nathan Burroughs, co-author of the report. "That such a small percentage of lower income, minority and English language learners are scoring at the advanced level on the NAEP is simply indefensible."

The study concludes that among the policies that impact the persisting excellence gaps are inconsistent efforts to target gifted students. In 2007 around one-third of states had mandates to identify and/or serve gifted students, but 18 provided no dedicated funding. Plucker said the findings are troubling since they suggest little focus on students with great potential to contribute to the nation and the world.

"Policymakers increasingly worry about where the next generation of innovators will come from," Plucker said. "Yet as a country, we simply haven't given much attention to students who excel academically or have the potential to excel. This disconnect between our concerns for the future and lack of attention to an obvious solution needs to be addressed quickly."

The authors recommend several potential solutions to the problem of persisting excellence gaps:

"'Mind the (Other) Gap" should be the wake-up call to all education policymakers that our nation is failing to serve its highest-potential students, particularly those students from underserved and disadvantaged backgrounds," said National Association for Gifted Children Executive Director Nancy Green. "The ever-widening excellence gap is a tragedy-in-waiting that can only be addressed by devoting attention and resources to meet the unique learning needs of high-potential students"

The full report, including state profile pages, is accessible at ceep.indiana.edu/mindthegap.

You may also see 2012 state-specific data for Connecticut by visiting www.iub.edu/~ceep/Gap/excellence2/CT.pdf.

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