A View on Higher Education: Despite narrowing achievement gap, states overlook top talent

The most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress were very encouraging overall for Minnesota students, their parents and their teachers. The state had some of the best scores in the nation, and the difference between r...

Harold Levy
Harold Levy
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The most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress were very encouraging overall for Minnesota students, their parents and their teachers. The state had some of the best scores in the nation, and the difference between rich and poor students scoring in the “basic” or “proficient” ranges has narrowed. That’s certainly good news.
But while the achievement gap is slowly closing, another gap actually is widening.
In all states, including Minnesota, there is a profound excellence gap, a measurable difference between lower-income and higher-income students who reach “advanced” levels on national-assessment tests, despite having tested “advanced” in early grades. This gap appears in the later grades in elementary school and continues through high school, accelerated by the educational advantages high-income students receive such as interacting with well-educated parents, participating in extracurricular enrichment programs, and attending schools with better, more-experienced teachers and smaller class sizes.
Despite its significant implications for social mobility, the excellence gap mostly had gone unnoticed until recently. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which focuses on improving opportunities for high-achieving, low-income students, released a groundbreaking report to systematically examine state-level policies related to academic excellence and to “grade” each state’s work. Unfortunately, no state earned an “A.” Minnesota, which earned the highest grade in the nation, received only a “B-” for both its policies and its students’ performance on standardized tests.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress results hide the real problem because advanced scores are disproportionately earned by wealthier students. Consider that 14 percent of Minnesota’s eighth-graders score at the advanced level on the national math assessment. Yet its excellence gaps between low-income and other students are substantial. In eighth-grade math, for example, only 5 percent of low-income students reach the advanced level, compared with 19 percent of all other students. More work needs to be done so that these excellence gaps narrow significantly.
Still, researchers found only four states - Minnesota is one of them - with policies that explicitly permit early entrance to kindergarten, grade acceleration and concurrent middle-school and high-school enrollment with credit for high school. Moreover, Minnesota requires that gifted students be identified and supported with services, and it reports on the outcomes of its gifted students.
Minnesota is also one of only nine states that participated in an international assessment in recent years. This is an impressive performance, as far as it goes.
Administrators in Minnesota’s Department of Education are clearly thinking about advanced education, whereas so many other states are asleep at the switch. There is a “gifted education” page on the Minnesota Department of Education’s website, a Gifted and Talented Advisory Council meets quarterly, and the state produces an annual report on its advanced learners.
Moreover, when researchers spoke to colleagues who have worked in Minnesota public K-12 education for many years, they gave substantial credit to the state Department of Education’s gifted education consultant. As one longtime educator and consultant noted, “The specialist has had a strong impact on serving gifted students and nurturing the gifts and talents of children in poverty. She’s been an absolute champion and deserves a lot of credit.” Others credited the strong state education department leadership that works in concert with local educators and higher-education professors.
They “brought lots of expertise to the table and created a synergy that led to some real change,” the longtime educator and consultant said.
Yet there remains a great deal of work to do. Minnesota missed an “A” grade because it could do more to recognize its advanced students and hold its educators accountable for serving them. In addition, it does not offer a state-level honors high school diploma, it does not require educators to receive training in gifted education, and it does not monitor or audit its gifted and talented programs. Minnesota can’t afford to rest on these laurels while another generation of undiscovered talent in poor areas slips away.
This is a critical issue for America’s international competitiveness. Overlooking scores of students who could possibly become tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and innovators is needlessly wasting what could be a boon to our country’s long-term economy. Minnesota can continue to lead the way by addressing the shortcomings the report identified - and I’m confident it will.
Harold Levy is executive director of the Lansdowne, Va.-based Jack Kent Cooke Foundation (, which offers the largest scholarships in the nation to high-performing students with financial need.

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