High-achieving American students tend to be white and well-off, much like throughout all of history.
Is that a failure of equal opportunity? It is, according to University of Connecticut education Professor Jonathan Plucker, DePauw University's Jacob Hardesty and Michigan State University's Nathan Burroughs. They say the problems are underreported but the demographics of who performs best and worst on standardized tests are well known. Yet the recurring lamentations about how 'abysmal' American students and teachers are tend to focus on the achievement gap among students - basic proficiency in subjects like math and reading - while ignoring the "excellence gap" at the highest achievement levels.
The report on this excellence gap follows up on an earlier paper from 2010 which said there was the possibility that the excellence gap between white, relatively affluent students and their poorer, nonwhite classmates might narrow.
"The current study should crush anyone's optimism about the country's success in developing academic talent," said Plucker, a professor in the Neag School of Education. "The data we explored for this report, along with a growing body of research, provide considerable evidence that America has a permanent talent underclass."
Leave it to the education community to crush any optimism about American students - just before they ask us to spend more money on the entrenched constituency who are failing to teach children.
For this paper, they used data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and state assessments, shows that while the percentage of white students scoring at the advanced level in Grade 4 mathematics increased from 2.9 percent to 9 percent between 1996 and 2011, the percentage of high-scoring black students barely budged, reaching 1.1 percent in 2011.
The math scores based on economic background were even more dramatic, with students ineligible for free or reduced-price lunches improving from 3.1 percent in the advanced range in 1996 to 11.4 percent in 2011. Less affluent students, meanwhile, went from 0.3 percent scoring in the advanced range to 1.8 percent.
The report also tracked reading scores and compared high achieving American students' performance to their international peers, a comparison that found U.S. students lagging.
They also compiled state-by-state comparisons, where the lack of non-white and poorer students among the highest achievers can be even more stark than the national average. In North Carolina, for example, the percentage of black students with advanced scores in Grade 4 math rounds to zero, while in Texas, an impressive 17 percent of more well-off students have advanced scores in that category, compared to just 3 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Individual state profiles are available at the report web site.
They then make policy recommendations, though why anyone would follow them is a mystery. The only improvement in education scores happened during No Child Left Behind, which the entire education community complained about - more insistence that requiring states to include the performances of advanced students in accountability systems to bringing federal resources, which are now essentially non-existent for excellence education to bear are bureaucratic and masking the larger problem. An 'excellence' gap is not the concern, America leads the world in science output and Nobel prizes, so its excellent students are doing well.
"If the diversity of our school-age population isn't represented among our high-achieving students, we can make the argument that we've failed to achieve either equity or excellence, with serious implications for America's future," Plucker said.
We can't mandate equal outcomes for all, but the excellence is already there.