According to a recent Hechinger Report, U.S. schools overlook a staggering 3.6 million gifted students, many of whom come from less advantaged backgrounds. By failing to identify these bright youngsters—much less provide them with special services—the nation leaves vast “ ” on the table. New on a Boston acceleration program reveals just how important it is for schools to serve these high-achieving students.
Conducted by Columbia University researcher Sarah Cohodes, this study examines the impacts of Boston Public Schools’(AWC). The program offers qualifying students an opportunity to learn in classrooms dedicated to advanced instruction throughout grades four through six. Program eligibility is based on a third grade normed-referenced test, with approximately 10 to 15 percent of Boston students meeting the test-score cut off. Although AWC participants tend to come from more advantaged backgrounds than their peers districtwide, nearly half of them are black or Hispanic, and two in three are eligible for subsidized meals. Most students who accept the AWC offer in fourth grade stay in the program through sixth grade—on average, students participate for 2.7 years.
To estimate the effects of AWC participation, Cohodes uses a “regression discontinuity” statistical method that in general compares students just above and below the eligibility cut-off. The basic idea is that these students are essentially identical, and by almost random draw, they either qualify for the program or not. In terms of outcomes, she examines state exam results, AP test-taking, SAT participation and scores, high school graduation, and college enrollment. Because the longer-run outcomes require a wider time frame, the analysis focuses on cohorts whose students were in third grade between 2001 and 2005.
Interesting findings emerge, especially for students of color. On state tests scores, black and Hispanic participants perform at slightly higher levels than the control group, though their gains are not quite statistically significant. The results for AP test-taking are likewise positive, though again not significant. More impressive results surface when examining SAT participation and high-school graduation. Among black and Hispanic AWC participants, 86 percent take the SAT compared to 74 percent of their peers (though their test scores are just marginally higher). Meanwhile, students of color post an 87 percent on-time graduation rate versus 67 percent for the control group, a large and statistically significant gain. The program’s impact is more muted, however, for Asian and white students, with largely null findings for those groups.
Perhaps the most important finding is that AWC boosts college enrollment among students of color. Of AWC’s black and Hispanic participants, 66 percent enroll in college right after high school, while just 40 percent of the control group do so. The study also finds that AWC leads to attendance at higher-quality colleges (as measured by graduates’ earnings), and the increase in college enrollment is being driven largely by matriculation at four-year universities. Yet akin to the K–12 outcomes, the impacts of AWC on college-going among Asian and white students are insignificant. The advantages in college enrollment for black and Hispanic participants are somewhat predictable, given that they’re more likely to graduate high school on-time. These effects “do not occur in isolation,” Cohodes writes. “Instead they rely on sequential increases in meeting milestones along the way.”
What mechanisms explain these results? Supplemental analyses explore whether exposure to higher-performing teachers and classmates are behind the gains for black and Hispanics. Her analyses rule out both as the primary drivers of these gains. Overall, the study concludes: “It appears that AWC is the beginning of a chain of events that causes participants to stay on-track for college throughout high school…. These small gains may build upon each other, with AWC providing the crucial ‘foot-in-the-door’ that begins a chain of positively reinforcing events.” Indeed, schools should strive to ensure that high flyers are identified and offered challenging coursework that enable them to “.” Taking a look at the successful Boston model would be a good first step.
Source: Sarah R. Cohodes, “” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy (forthcoming). An open-access version is available .