- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The nation’s gifted and talented students have not made the notable academic gains the lowest-performing students have made in recent years, and teachers are pay more attention to struggling students than high achievers, a new report has found.

The report, made public Wednesday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, examined test scores and teacher opinion before and after the implementation of the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which requires states to bring students, including the lowest-performers, to grade-level proficiency in reading and math.

The study found that while the bottom 10 percent of students made notable gains in reading and math over several years, gains made by the top 10 percent have been less impressive - a pattern that bodes poorly for global competitiveness, some experts said.

“If we want to compete with the rest of the world, we need our best and brightest to be making progress also,” said Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Fordham Institute.

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Assocation, said NCLB is “particularly problematic” for high achievers because it forces teachers to focus on lower performers to avoid law’s penalties. Mr. Weaver, whose group is a lead critic of NCLB, said it is “time to usher in a new era” in which schools have enough resources to be able to focus equally on education of all children.

But NCLB is not to blame for the slower improvement of the top students, since the study found the students were essentially making the same minimal gains before NCLB as they were making during it, said Tom Loveless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who conducted research.

And while low-achieving students made bigger strides during the NCLB era than they did before the law , he said, the study couldn’t determine whether NCLB played a role. Teacher training, textbooks or other state initiatives could have been involved in the improvement.

His study found the lowest-performing fourth-grade students gained an average of 16 points in reading from 2000 to 2007, while those in the 90th percentile gained an average of only three points, according to an analysis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In eighth-grade math, the bottom 10 percent of students gained an average of 13 points over that time, while the highest-performers improved by an average of five points. Both groups made notable gains in fourth-grade math while neither improved in eighth-grade reading, the study found.

It also found states with school testing and accountability in place in the 1990s showed a similar pattern of narrowing achievement gaps between high and low performers, with low performers making stronger gains. Mr. Loveless suggested lawmakers should add incentives to NCLB that encourage teachers to raise high-performers’ scores, too.

The report also included a survey of 900 public school teachers who were asked about academic gains and their students.

Researchers at the Farkas Duffett Research Group , which conducted the poll, found that 60 percent said struggling students are a top priority at their school and 23 percent said the same of academically advanced students.

The survey also found that 81 percent said low performers are more likely to get one-on-one attention while five percent said the more advanced students were more likely. The survey also found 86 percent said all students deserve equal attention, and 77 percent said the recent focus on getting low performers to proficiency has crowded out high performers.