Achievement Trap: the fate of high-achieving students from poor backgrounds

The Achievement Trap report (of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation) “chronicles the experiences of high achieving lower-income students during elementary school, high school, college, and graduate school.”

They note: “In some respects, our findings are quite hopeful. There are [3.4 million]… high-achieving lower-income students in urban, suburban, and rural communities all across America; they reflect the racial, ethnic, and gender composition of our nation’s schools; they drop out of high school at remarkably low rates; and more than 90 percent of them enter college.


“But there is also cause for alarm. There are far fewer lower-income students achieving at the highest levels than there should be, they disproportionately fall out of the high-achieving group during elementary and high school, they rarely rise into the ranks of high achievers during those periods, and, perhaps most disturbingly, far too few ever graduate from college or go on to graduate school.


“Unless something is done, many more of America’s brightest lower-income students will meet this same educational fate, robbing them of opportunity and our nation of a valuable resource.”


The findings come from three federal databases that have tracked students in elementary and high school, college, and graduate school over the past 20 years. And this population of 3.4 million children that are the top quartile academically on standardized tests, but come from households with incomes below the national median exceed the populations of 21 states. (Over one million of these children Kqualify for free or reduced-price lunch.)

Selected other findings:

  • They exhibit an Unequal Start: “Among first-grade students performing in the top academic quartile, only 28 percent are from lower-income families, while 72 percent are from higher-income families.”
  • In elementary and high school, these low-income, high-achieving students lose ground during K-12, becoming ever less frequent as the years progress. For example, “only 56 percent of lower-income students maintain their status as high achievers in reading by fifth grade, versus 69 percent of higher-income students….[And] [w]hile 25 percent of high-achieving lower-income students fall out of the top academic quartile in math in high school, only 16 percent of high-achieving upper-income students do so….Among those not in the top academic quartile in first grade, children from families in the upper income half are more than twice as likely as those from lower-income families to rise into the top academic quartile by fifth grade.”   So the ranks of low-income high-achievers start proportionately smaller, they have a harder time holding ground and low-income students are much less likely to break into this high-achieving group if they don’t start there.
  • High-achieving lower-income students drop out of high school or do not graduate on time twice as often “as their higher-income peers (8 percent vs. 4 percent) but still far below the national average (30 percent).”
  • “Unfulfilled Potential in College & Graduate School: Losses of high-achieving lower-income students and the disparities between them and their higher-income academic peers persist through the college years. While more than nine out of ten high-achieving high school students in both income halves attend college (98 percent of those in the top half and 93 percent of those in the bottom half), high-achieving lower-income students are:
    • Less likely to graduate from college than their higher-income peers (59 percent versus 77 percent);
    • Less likely to attend the most selective colleges (19 percent versus 29 percent);
    • More likely to attend the least selective colleges (21 percent versus 14 percent); and
    • Less likely to graduate when they attend the least selective colleges (56 percent versus 83 percent).”
  • “High-achieving lower-income students are much less likely to receive a graduate degree than high-achieving students from the top income half. Specifically, among college graduates, 29 percent of high achievers from lower-income families receive graduate degrees as compared to 47 percent of high achievers from higher-income families. This pattern of declining educational attainment mirrors the experiences of underachieving students from lower-income families — they start grade school behind their peers, fall back during high school, and complete college and graduate school at lower rates than those from higher-income families.”

“Our nation has understandably focused education policy on low-performing students from lower-income backgrounds. The laudable goals of improving basic skills and ensuring minimal proficiency in reading and math remain urgent, unmet, and deserving of unremitting focus. Indeed, our nation will not maintain its promise of equal opportunity at home or its economic position internationally unless we do a better job of educating students who currently fail to attain basic skills. But this highly visible national struggle to reverse poor achievement among low-income students must be accompanied by a concerted effort to promote high achievement within the same population. The conclusion to be drawn from our research findings is not that high-achieving students from lower-income backgrounds are suffering more than other lower-income students, but that their talents are similarly under-nurtured. Even though lower-income students succeed at one grade level, we cannot assume that they are subsequently exempt from the struggles facing other lower-income students or that we do not need to pay attention to their continued educational success. Holding on to those faulty assumptions will prevent us from reversing the trend made plain by our findings: we are failing these high-achieving students throughout the educational process.”

[above adapted from their Executive Summary.] 

The report is silent on what the mechanisms are that account for the unequal start of these groups in school and why the low-income, high-achieving groups lose ground over time in schools. It could be parental support, it could be school attention on this group, it could be peer groups, or other causes, but they indicate that this issue of mechanisms is definitely worthy of greater attention and study.

Full “Achievement Trap” report here.


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