In recent weeks, I’ve dug into the “excellence gap“—the sharp divides along lines of race and class at the highest levels of academic and educational achievement. My argument has gone something like this:
1. The excellence gap at the twelfth grade level largely explains why Black, Hispanic, and low-income students are underrepresented at our most selective universities. Without affirmative action, this underrepresentation would be much worse.
2. Sadly, the excellence gap appears long before high school. It looks much the same as far back as fourth grade, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. For example, just 4 percent of fourth graders who score Advanced in reading are Black, as are just 6 percent of Hispanic students.
3. That said, the gaps are slightly smaller in fourth grade than in twelfth, especially for Black and low-income students, indicating that middle schools and high schools may be making the problem worse.
4. The excellence gap is even apparent at kindergarten entry. That indicates that much of the gap is driven by out-of-school factors, especially socioeconomic inequality between the ages of zero and five.
5. Yet many more Black and low-income students are achieving at high levels in kindergarten, especially in reading, than in later years. This indicates that something is causing the excellence gap to widen in the early years of elementary school. (Other achievement gaps tend to grow during these early years, as well.)
That last point is what gives me hope. If we can understand why a disproportionate number of Black and low-income high-achievers are “losing altitude” in grades K–3, we might identify strategies to reverse this trend.
So what might explain it? And what, if anything, might be done about it? Let’s dive into some possibilities.
1. Socioeconomic inequality continues to exert downward pressure on these students’ achievement. It is likely that the same factors that keep some students from developing their full potential before they ever get to school continue to wreak havoc as they make their way through childhood. The left would point to systemic racism and a weak social safety net; the right would point to family structure and culture.
2. Black and low-income high achievers may lack access to high-quality elementary schools. This is both common sense and a bit circular: These students aren’t making as much progress as their peers, so by definition their schools are not as effective at boosting achievement. It’s probably true but not particularly helpful in identifying what precisely schools might be doing (or not), and what we might do to fix the situation.
3. Early elementary teachers may be biased against Black and low-income high achievers. Now we’re hitting on something that policymakers and practitioners might try to fix. In my post last fall on the gender gap in reading, I offered evidence that teachers in the early grades were biased against boys. That was apparent when researchers used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) to compare students’ test scores to teachers’ evaluations of the same children’s abilities. Teachers systematically underestimated boys’ reading prowess, perhaps conflating their bad behavior with struggles in learning to read. As a result, they might have placed “good girls” in their highest reading group, and left “bad boys” to languish in groups that weren’t challenging enough.
Perhaps something similar is happening by race or class? I couldn’t find direct evidence for the early elementary grades, but we know from other studies that teacher expectations matter, and they tend to be lower for Black students. This is of course why leading thinkers in the field of gifted education are so adamant about universal screening; we know that teacher or parent recommendations can be biased, so we need objective ways to identify students who could benefit from advanced education. More on that below.
4. These students may be struggling with reading comprehension, thanks to limited content knowledge. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has argued for over three decades, many children struggle to comprehend because they lack the vocabulary to be fluent readers. And their vocabulary deficit comes from a knowledge deficit; they haven’t been taught enough about science, history, geography, and the arts to recognize common words when they sound them out.
There’s tantalizing evidence from ECLS—the source of the kindergarten achievement data I’ve been using—that this is precisely what’s happening. As discussed in previous posts, that study tested incoming kindergarteners in the fall of 1998 in reading and math, using an assessment read aloud by teachers. Given the age of the students, the reading assessment focused on basic literacy skills: “recognizing the printed word, identifying sounds, word reading, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.”
Intriguingly, ECLS also assessed students’ “general knowledge,” defined this way:
General knowledge represents children’s breadth and depth of understanding of the social and physical environment (i.e., the social, physical and natural world) and their ability to draw inferences and comprehend implications. Dimensions of knowledge measured by the ECLS-K battery include factual information from the physical, earth, biological and social sciences. The skills children need to establish relationships between and among objects, events or people and to make inferences and to comprehend the implications of verbal and pictorial concepts, are also measured. It addresses such topical areas as history, geography and science.
Lo and behold, a much larger proportion of Black and low-income students scored in the top quartile on reading than on general knowledge—10 percent versus 4 percent for Black students, and 21 percent versus 16 percent for low-income students.
By the fourth grade, the NAEP reading assessment tests both the basic literacy skills included on the ECLS reading exam and the reading comprehension ability related to the ECLS general knowledge assessment. Especially at high levels of achievement, basic skills (such as decoding) can be taken for granted; the best readers, then, must also have a strong command of comprehension. And that means having a broad vocabulary built atop a strong base of knowledge.
So perhaps many Black and low-income high achievers are “losing altitude” in the early grades because their strong decoding and other basic literacy skills are not matched by strong content knowledge. If so, building up their content knowledge might make a big difference. Encouragingly, a recent Fordham Institute analysis of the ECLS data found that students made more progress in reading when their teachers spent more time on social studies.
So what might we do to keep the excellence gap from widening in the early grades? The first item on my to-do list is already familiar to the gifted education field:
- Identify students with the potential for high achievement via universal screening and local, school-based norms. This increases the likelihood of identifying students who might otherwise be overlooked and guards against potential bias in teacher recommendations. Students identified as gifted or high achieving should have opportunities to learn with other advanced students at least part of the day, and otherwise have access to accelerated programs.
But there are other actions policymakers and practitioners should take that get less attention in gifted-education circles:
- Start universal screening in kindergarten. Many districts wait to use the third-grade state assessment as the universal-screening tool. But that means not identifying and serving students until the fourth grade—which is way too late, as much of the excellence gap has already opened up by then. Schools should use whatever high-quality assessment they already utilize in kindergarten instead, such as the MAP or i-Ready. And they should continue using such assessments every year to identify older students, too.
- Go big on content knowledge, especially in grades K–3. Advocates already call for “front-loading” the curriculum, making sure that all students receive a rich, challenging curriculum as soon as they arrive in school, and providing opportunities for educators to notice students who show great academic progress but might not test well yet. Perhaps that front-loading should be loaded with content knowledge, as Hirsch has argued all these years. Thankfully, some of the best new Common Core–aligned instructional materials, like Core Knowledge Language Arts, Wit and Wisdom, and EL Education, take content knowledge seriously. Gifted educators should become their champions.
- Incorporate grades K–2 into state testing and accountability systems. It’s absurd that the most critical years in K–12 are the ones we don’t include in our accountability policies. Today’s technology makes assessing young students quite feasible, valid, and reliable, and including these grades in accountability systems would encourage a greater focus on helping kids get off to a great start (and discourage schools from placing their weakest teachers in grades K–2). As with other grades, we should focus most of our attention on student progress from year to year (rather than snapshots in time), and should hold schools accountable for helping all students, including their high achievers, make ample gains.
We’re never going to erase the excellence gap entirely until we erase socioeconomic inequalities from conception through kindergarten. But those of us in K–12 education have a responsibility to do everything we can to help every student achieve their full potential. We’re clearly not hitting that standard today, and the earlier we start doing so the better.