News media and think tanks often call attention to achievement gaps in education, highlighting test-score differences between racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups. A related issue that gets little attention is the "excellence gap," the fact that minority and underprivileged students make up a disproportionately small share of top scorers on national and international assessments.
Research from scholars at Indiana University and Michigan State University -- presented today, Feb. 18, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science -- provides new insights into excellence gaps, both in the United States and on an international scale.
And the news is mixed. Gaps in the United States remain large and, in many areas, have continued to grow in recent years. But international data show girls are catching up with boys in many parts of the world, while differences remain small and stable between native-born and immigrant students.
"We are entering an era where the world will face a set of global problems not imaginable to past generations, many of which cannot be solved without extensive international cooperation," Indiana University researchers David Rutkowski, Leslie Rutkowski and Jonathan Plucker write in "Trends in Excellence Gaps," one of several papers prepared for the AAAS symposium.
"Without strong intellectual leadership, global issues such as climate change, large-scale demographic shifts and depletion of natural resources will only be more difficult to resolve, if not impossible. As a global society, we must do more to increase the number of high-achieving students."
Presentations at AAAS include:
Plucker, director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, providing new data on U.S. excellence gaps, updating the 2010 study "Mind the (Other) Gap: The Growing Excellence Gap in K-12 Education."
Nathan A. Burroughs of the Institute for Research on Mathematics and Science Education at Michigan State University, presenting evidence of growing U.S. excellence gaps in science by race, ethnicity and gender.
David Rutkowski, an assistant professor of education policy studies at Indiana University, presenting evidence on international excellence gaps in math and science.
Plucker analyzed 15 years of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as "The Nation's Report Card," focusing on students who score at the highest level, called advanced. NAEP is given every two years to students in the fourth and eighth grades.
The latest data show that gaps continued to grow between 2007 and 2011 for students of different races and ethnicities and for poor and non-poor students. For example:
On the fourth-grade math test, the number of white students scoring advanced increased from 7.6 percent to 9 percent. African-American students at the advanced level increased only from 0.8 percent to 1.1 percent and Hispanic students from 1.5 percent to 1.9 percent.
Gaps increased even more between students from low-income families and others. On the eighth-grade math test, disadvantaged students at the advanced level rose from 1.7 percent to 2.5 percent while others scoring advanced increased from 10 percent to 12.8 percent.
Boys outperformed girls in math, but more girls than boys scored at the advanced level in reading.
Extending the work on excellence gaps to an international focus, IU researchers analyzed data from 82 educational systems that participated in at least one of the four assessments between 1995 and 2007 under the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.
While more boys than girls performed at the advanced level on TIMSS in math and science, the gender excellence gap grew smaller over 12 years. Girls appeared to be outperforming boys in 2007 in Singapore in math and in Iran and Singapore in science. The analysis found little change in the relative performance of native-born and immigrant students on the TIMSS assessments. Data by race or socio-economic status were not available for TIMSS.
The researchers said more investigation is needed to understand the causes of excellence gaps and to design effective policies for bridging them. In the U.S., they said, the focus on basic skills produced by the No Child Left Behind Act may have distracted attention from high-achieving students.
Plucker said policies are often created without consideration of how they will affect advanced students. For example, rigorous high school graduation rules that deny college financial aid to students without a diploma can penalize advanced students who are ready to start college early.
"When policy makers adopt new policies," he said, "they should sit back for a minute and ask two questions: How is this going to impact advanced students, and how is it going to help us get more students to be advanced?"