Duluth News Tribune: JKCF Discusses the Excellence Gap in Minnesota

DuluthNewsTribuneLogoA 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 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.

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Harold Levy is executive director of the Lansdowne, Va.-based Jack Kent Cooke Foundation (jkcf.org), which offers the largest scholarships in the nation to high-performing students with financial need.