Washington Times, November 19, 2007: A new report card

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By John M. Bridgeland and Joshua S. Wyner

The nation’s “report card” shows fourth and eighth graders making gains in math and fourth graders improving in reading. Achievement gaps are closing for black and Hispanic students. The news is cause for optimism that No Child Left Behind is working to achieve its goal proficiency for kids who many dismissed as chronic low performers.

What remains tragic, however, is that the achievement gap between low-income and high-income advanced students is widening. For America’s millions of low-income, high-achievers, the nation’s report card demonstrates the danger of setting our educational sights too low.

While the test results show the overall number of advanced students expanding, America’s low-income students are the ones left behind. There are virtually no gains among advanced students eligible for reduced or free-lunch (the equivalent of poverty in the educational setting). Thus, while the proficiency gap is closing, lower-income students are falling further behind in the critical measure of excellence, a central measure used by American colleges and employers, and our global competitors.

This excellence gap reflects a long-neglected trend. As our “Achievement Trap” report shows, our nation’s schools do a poor job of promoting and maintaining academic excellence among lower-income students. The report uncovers a problem wider and deeper than the report card suggests, afflicting high-achieving lower-income students from first grade through college and extending beyond poor students to 3.4 million students from America’s bottom economic half.

Our findings are troubling. Nearly half of lower-income students reading in the top quartile in first grade regress to lower levels by fifth grade, compared to only one out of three high-achieving, high-income students. Those children from low-income families who make it through middle school achieving at top levels continue to lose ground through high school. One-quarter of students from lower-income backgrounds lose their standing in the top quartile of math performers during high school, compared to only 16 percent of those from higher-income backgrounds.

Outcomes for these remarkable students do not improve in higher education. While they enter college at high rates, only 55 percent of students from lower-income families who graduated from high school in the top quartile of our national student population ever receive a college degree. This compares to nearly three out of four higher-income students. Even when they finish college, these lower-income students are only about half as likely to receive a graduate degree as their more affluent peers.

What does it say about our nation when students do everything we ask and still have little better than a 50-50 chance of achieving the American dream? Can we expect to close the income gap in America and remain globally competitive when, as our national report card shows, we are failing even these students? The 3.4 million high-achieving lower-income students embody the core principle behind the federal No Child Left Behind law that ZIP codes and racial identification do not dictate whether a child can learn at the highest levels. We found these students fully reflect American diversity, by race, ethnicity, gender and geography.

When Congress considers reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, it should hold schools accountable for the number of low-income students achieving at advanced levels, not just proficiency. Elementary, middle and high schools need to implement effective strategies to identify, engage and challenge the highest achieving students so they make meaningful progress as other classmates learn basic skills. And once they complete high school at high levels, these students deserve the focused attention of colleges and policymakers to ensure that they graduate and take their place among our nation’s leaders.

American schools are supposed to be engines of social mobility, enabling the poor to advance as far as their abilities and hard work can take them. But those engines are sputtering for lower-income students who show the most academic promise. Our nation must do better and raise its expectations beyond mere “proficiency.”

Imagine unleashing the potential of millions of promising students from tough circumstances and the contributions they could make to our communities, country and world. If America is to fulfill its creed of equal opportunity, this must become part of America’s next educational challenge.

John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises. Joshua S. Wyner is executive vice president of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Both are co-authors of the new report “Achievement Trap.”

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