This month, The Education Trust released a forward-thinking report, “Breaking the Glass Ceiling of Achievement for Low-Income Students and Students of Color,” which tells the story of the achievement gap from a new angle. Most efforts to date have focused the achievement gap between our low-performing students, but The Education Trust’s report points out that achievement gaps also exist between our high-performing students. The Education Trust points out that achieving full equality in America means that we need to make sure that our low-income students and students of color are also represented amongst our high-achieving students. In other words, it’s not enough to raise their performance to proficient; we need to raise the bar even higher.

Using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), The Education Trust demonstrates this trend by studying the progress that subgroups make in narrowing their gaps over time. For example, if Hispanic students were to narrow their gaps more than White students over an increment of time, then Hispanic students would be deemed to have shown more improvement than their White peers. The interesting twist in this study by The Education Trust, however, is that it distinguishes between gaps at the “low-end” and gaps at the “high-end” of achievement by comparing gaps amongst sub-groups at the Below Basic and Advanced levels, independently.

For instance, on Connecticut’s 4th grade math NAEP, our low-income students showed greater improvement than their more affluent peers at the Below Basic level (the low-end) between 2003 and 2011. However, (in keeping with the results in the report by the Education Trust), when we compare the same groups at the Advanced level, non-low-income students made greater gains than their low-income peers.

The graphs below use Connecticut results to demonstrate the trend identified by The Education Trust. They compare the percentage point gains* made by subgroups to identify which subgroups have made the most gains, and whether these results change at the low-end or high-end of achievement.

The results indicate that White students in Connecticut also made greater gains than Black or Hispanic students at the high-end of achievement. These results show that achievement gaps are more pronounced at the highest-level of academic performance.

The Education Trust’s study points out that the opportunity gap will only be truly closed when we close achievement gaps across all performance levels–low, middle, and high. We need to raise the bar for all students of all races and backgrounds, and we need to raise our standards for measuring our progress in closing the achievement gap.

This study is the first in a series that the Education Trust intends to produce. The next will explore gaps in opportunities for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. We can’t wait to learn more!

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*The table below shows the manner in which we have identified “Percentage Point Gains”. It tracks the percent of students who scored Below Basic and Advanced in 2003 and 2011, and whether any gains were made by each subgroup during that time frame.