Are Gifted Kids Getting Left Behind?

In an op-ed in the New York Times today, Tom Loveless and Michael Petrelli argue that our brightest students are suffering from “benign neglect” due to NCLB's emphasis on low-achievers, despite a recent report that says otherwise. Over at The Quick and the Ed, however, Chad Alderman says whoa, not so fast: it’s unclear what is and isn’t attributable to NCLB and here’s some data that shows that bright kids are doing okay.

It’s a worthwhile exercise to evaluate gifted Jersey kids using the data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress. That’s the national test given to kids across the country in 4th and 8th grades (it used to be just math and reading, but now science and writing have been added), and it’s the data used by Loveless, Petrelli, and Alderman. Trends from NAEP are more reliable than the NJ state assessments, where cut scores ebb and flow like the tides.

Contrary to the conclusions voiced in the Times op-ed, gifted kids in N.J. seem unaffected by NCLB’s focus on low-achievers, at least if you define “gifted” as scoring in the category of advanced proficiency on the NAEP. NCLB went into effect in 2002. From 2003-2007, the percentage of 4th graders in N.J. who scored in that exalted category went up 1% (from 11% of the population to 12%) in reading and 4% (from 5% to 9%) in math. The percentage of 8th graders who scored “advanced proficent” in reading was 3% in 2003 and 4% in 2007. For math, 6% scored at the top level in 2003 and 10% got there in 2007, a net gain of 4%.

It’s harder to be sanguine, however, when you look at our kids who score either “basic,” which NAEP defines as “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade” and “proficient, which means “solid academic performance.” There’s also an undefined “below basic” category, which presumably means that mastery is less than partial. In an ideal world, large percentages of 4th and 8th graders would move successively from “below basic” to “basic” to “proficient” to (pftt! pftt!) “advanced proficient.” We’re not there yet. 7% of 4th grade readers extracted themselves from “below basic” and distributed themselves in the “basic” and “proficient” categories between 2003 and 2007. But 8th grade readers had basically flat scores: a drop of 2% of kids scored “below basic” (from 21% to 19%), a flat 42% were stuck in the “basic” category, and there was no change in “advanced proficiency (4%). In math, 20% of 4th graders scored “below basic in 2003 and 10% in 2007, a nice drop. But 23% of our 2007 class of 8th graders scored “below basic” and another 37% scored “basic,” not terribly different from the 2003 numbers. We're not sustaining our gains in the early grades.

Interesting, some of the biggest gain came before the implementation of NCLB. More kids being tested? An increase in the economic diversity in the Garden State? Test fatigue? Chime in.