Phantom Menace

A Look at the Right’s Alarmist Rhetoric About Top Students

Ulrich Boser and Diana Epstein dismantle a report from the Fordham Institute alleging that school accountability systems might be dumbing down our best and brightest.

Jasmine Price, a 10th grader at Dallas's Talented and Gifted Magnet school, studies early American art during an advanced placement art history class. (AP/Amy Conn-Gutierrez)
Jasmine Price, a 10th grader at Dallas's Talented and Gifted Magnet school, studies early American art during an advanced placement art history class. (AP/Amy Conn-Gutierrez)

When the Thomas B. Fordham Institute talks, people in the education policy community listen. The right-of-center think tank’s staff includes some of the most well-known names in the education community, including Checker Finn, who has authored 19 books on education reform over the past two decades.

A few weeks ago, Fordham released a report that claimed that the nation’s efforts to close achievement gaps might be coming at the expense of our “talented tenth.” Those are students who score in the top 10 percent on standardized tests. And again folks listened.

The New York Times held an online debate devoted to the question, “Are Top Students Getting Short Shrift?” In that forum, American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess wrote that "we are shortchanging America’s brightest students, and we’re doing it reflexively and furtively." Fordham Institute’s Executive Vice President Mike Petrilli went so far as to claim in radio interviews that “today in our schools it’s considered elitist even to consider having gifted programs or honors programs.”

But there are a number of problems with both the study and the conclusions that are flying around the pundit-sphere. For starters, Fordham Institute’s research does not support its claims—even the statisticians who performed the study have distanced themselves from the conclusions about the effect of NCLB on high achievers.

Moreover, an examination of achievement and other data show that some areas have actually been devoting more resources to the nation’s top students over the past decade, not less. Case in point: Gifted and talented programs have been growing in many states in recent years. The programs are of widely varying quality and often have little to do with achievement levels, to be sure. But the programs are an indicator of how schools choose to spend their resources, and it seems that educators have actually been devoting additional funds to top performers. In Maryland, for instance, the percentage of students in gifted and talented programs grew by a third from 2000 to 2006. In 2009 a whopping 16 percent of all students in New York were enrolled in gifted and talented programs.

Here are the problems with the Fordham Institute’s study. The research tracked individual students over time from school year 2005 to 2010 and found that many high-achieving students struggle to maintain their performance and often don’t improve their reading ability at the same rate as their average and below-average peers. This is an issue. No question. But Fordham interpreted the study to say that the federal No Child Left Behind law might have caused high-flying students to do worse over time, even though the researchers didn’t look at that issue.

All of Fordham’s data came from the post-NCLB time period, so without a pre-NCLB comparison, there is no way to make a claim that NCLB caused the decline.

“The study wasn’t designed to be inferential,” wrote John Cronin in an email exchange with us. Cronin is one of the authors of the Fordham study and the director of the Kingsbury Center at Northwest Evaluation Association, which the Fordham Institute commissioned to write the report. “The study didn’t identify causes to the problem, and we would neither affirm nor reject the claim that efforts to close achievement gaps or NCLB would necessarily be the cause of the problem we described.”

There are other problems with the report. Notably, it turns out that the top students didn’t actually lose that much ground. In the report, the authors write, “Even those students who ‘lost altitude’ (dropped below our 90th percentile cutoff) didn’t glide too far from the high-achieving ranks. Most stayed at the 70th percentile or higher.” But that finding—a nonfinding, really—is far less sexy than one that claims that our nation’s best and brightest are getting short shrift.

Similarly, using the 90th percentile to denote “high flyers” is an arbitrary standard, yet this designation marked the critical cutoff between a student who maintained high performance and one who was labeled a “descender” in the Fordham Institute report. Moving from the 90th to the 89th percentile is meaningless. A better methodology would have looked at each student’s total loss or gain over time and then drawn appropriate conclusions.

Nor does the report acknowledge the true consequences of poverty on student achievement. The researchers note that “high achievers in high-poverty schools grew slightly less than those in low-poverty schools,” but oddly use this finding to argue that poverty is not a strong predictor of student progress. We know, however, that low-income children need more resources in order to overcome the disadvantages they bring with them to school. To say that performance is unrelated to the resources provided to schools is disingenuous.

More importantly, a broader look at the data suggests that the nation’s top students have actually been gaining ground in a number of areas. From 2000 to 2009, for instance, the percentage of eighth graders scoring at the highest level in math jumped 3 percentage points on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. There’s also been a jump in the percentage of fourth graders scoring at the advanced level on the math exam over that same time period.

We agree with both the Fordham Institute—and Hess—on a variety of school reform issues. Most notably, we agree that the No Child Left Behind Act is in serious need of repair. The law requires schools to implement improvement strategies that are not strong enough to help them get better over time. Schools also get zero credit for making academic growth. Both of these areas need to be addressed by Congress, but that does not mean that we should neglect our lowest achievers or our massive achievement gaps. Indeed, our lowest achievers need the most help—and offer the most potential for growth.

Looking forward, we believe states should set both annual achievement goals and gap-closing goals for all students. We also believe states need to set college- and career-ready standards for all students so the discussion around reform is ultimately not about gaps but about success for all students regardless of their family backgrounds. In an increasingly competitive global marketplace for talent, we need all our students to be achieving at high levels.

Indeed, the Fordham Institute study shows that high-achieving students are underrepresented in high-poverty schools, and the proportion of high achievers in high-poverty schools declined over time. These are important findings that should be afforded far more attention than they receive in the report.

In its promotional material, Fordham often hails itself as an “education gadfly.” That moniker has always struck us as odd. The dictionary has a number of definitions for a gadfly, including “a fly that bites livestock” and “an annoying person, especially one who provokes others into action by criticism.” Those might be accurate, but at least in this instance, we might add another definition: “someone who overstates the evidence in order to advance an erroneous theory.”

Ulrich Boser is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he analyzes education issues. Diana Epstein is a Senior Education Policy Analyst at the Center.

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Ulrich Boser

Former Senior Fellow