UConn researchers tackle excellence gap



University of Connecticut researchers have found a troubling excellence gap between students of high and low incomes in the United States.


The excellence gap is “the disparity in the percent of lower-income versus higher-income students who reach advanced levels of academic performance,” according to the interactive website set up upon completion of the study, www.excellencegap.org.


The project was undertaken by Jonathan Plucker, a UConn Professor of Education, Jennifer Giancola, the Director of Research at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, seniors Daniel Arndt and Grace Healey, who both study teaching, and Chen Wang, a UConn graduate student in the Cognition, Instruction, and Learning Technology program.


Arndt found in previous research that gifted students are being overlooked.


“Standardized tests typically force school districts and states to prioritize the learning students that have a median achievement level over those that are far above or below the threshold necessary for the state or district to receive education funding,” Arndt said.


The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, a non-profit company which works on helping low-income and highly-gifted students, contacted Plucker and Arndt about doing research in this vein for the organization. They met with a variety of national policy-experts to try and develop a grading scale, which would evaluate states according to how well they educate and assist the gifted.


Data collection then began, with state technical manuals on education policy and state testing data brought under consideration.


With all the data analyzed, the researchers set out to grade states based on their policy infrastructure for gifted and talented education, specifically for students from low-income and high-income backgrounds. The results were staggering. Not a single state received an “A.”


The website explains the purpose of the excellence gap initiative, and gives publicity to the important numbers found in the study. Part of the initiative is to debunk myths, like all smart kids will be fine on their own, whether low-income or high-income. While 71 percent of gifted and wealthy children took at least one AP or international baccalaureate course, only 49 percent of gifted children from low-income backgrounds did so. 30 percent of gifted and low-income students take part in an academic honor society, compared to 51 percent of gifted and high-income students.


A particularly telling number is that 22 percent of students in the top 25 percent academically, but in the bottom 25 percent economically, don’t apply to college.


This is in part because there are no national teaching standards, so low-income areas spend less money on teachers who are in the upper echelon of achievement.


The study says that, “Overall, high-performing, low-income students are less likely to complete college than even their low-achieving, high-income peers.”


Other examples of this conclusion include the fact that gifted students from low-income backgrounds sport a 59 percent chance of graduating college, as opposed to 77 percent of high-income, high achievers.


As is stated succinctly on the website detailing the study’s findings, “high-ability students from low-income families are less likely to enroll in college than those from high-income families; less likely to matriculate at an institution with the academic rigor and selectivity that match their academic abilities and accomplishments; less likely to fully engage in campus experiences and enriched learning experience; and less likely to graduate.”


Plucker, the UConn Professor who played a huge role in the study, spoke to why the study was assumed.


“We started out looking to see how much attention state policymakers are paying to low-income, high-ability students. What we found was that there is very little attention being paid. It just doesn’t seem to be on state policymakers’ radar screens,” Plucker said. “If nothing else, we’d like to see states make low-income, high-ability students more visible – we suspect most people don’t realize there’s a huge problem because these students are somewhat invisible. Ways to approach this are to report data on these students whenever state test results are reported, and to include these students in each state’s education accountability system.”


Some of the reasons for the excellence gap are isolation, when, the study states, high-achieving and low-income students are “caught between being themselves and belonging easily and naturally with family, friends, and community.” Poor preparation is another cause of the excellence gap, which refers to teachers spending more time on lower achieving students in order to raise collective test scores, and leaving high achievers to “fend for themselves.” Lack of information is another negative factor, with many high achieving, low-income students assuming they can’t afford college. This is in part higher-education’s fault for not making a concerted effort to reach out to these students.


There are some remedies researchers had in mind. These are for colleges to try and foster more economic diversity, rather than solely ethnic diversity. In addition, costs must be made clear to students who wish to attend college, especially the numbers involved with tuition and financial aid. Another suggestion was to foster cooperation between two and four year institutions. Said the website, “Given the success of high-achieving, low-income students at selective colleges, two and four-year institutions should work together to foster a transfer-friendly environment.”


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