The Excellence Gap that first truly manifests itself in the middle grades becomes much more significant - and most damaging - in high school, when college readiness must be carefully and purposefully cultivated.
Nationally, there are 60,300 students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds who perform among the top 25 percent of all students in reading and math at the beginning of high school. Too many are not challenged with advanced math and science courses. Too many leave high school with lower AP exam rates, lower SAT/ACT scores, and lower GPAs than their more advantaged peers — a reality that influences their choices beyond high school.
While teachers, counselors and parents of higher-income students grow ever more acutely aware of the competition for admission to the most selective colleges, these high-achieving, low-income students often find themselves with scarce support, resources or role models. While their grades and test scores show evidence of the elements that colleges extol — talent, intellect, grit, perseverance — few low-income achievers allow themselves to imagine the same path or possibilities commanding attention in more wealthy districts, better funded high schools and more college-savvy homes.
Data tells us:
Less than half (49 percent) took at least one Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course, compared with 71 percent of their high-income peers
Only 29 percent of high-achieving low-income students take calculus, compared with 42 percent of their high-income peers
Only 49 percent of high-achieving low-income students take both chemistry and physics compared with 67 percent of their high-income peers
One in four (23 percent) will not take the SAT or ACT exam
At least one study has shown that teacher perception - not actual performance or work quality - plays the largest role in persistent gaps between low- and high-income students at the top of the GPA scale.
Course Options and Rigor
Low-income schools consistently lack the academic options of wealthier schools, especially in math and sciences. Some 500,000 American students attend high schools that do not offer a math course as advanced as even Algebra II.
On average, America spends more on high-income students than low-income ones, making it among just three countries worldwide to do so. Because public schools are funded in large part by local taxes, those serving low-income areas are often under-resourced.
Standardized Test Preparation
The gap in SAT scores between students from rich and poor families has grown — from a gap of 90 points during the 1980s to 125 points today. An arms race of sorts has fed the private test prep industry, and prices for that help have risen twice as fast as average wages since 2012 tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The large gap in SAT scores indicates that we are failing high-achieving, low-income students by not adequately preparing them academically and specifically to the tests.
Low-income students are underserved by high school guidance counselors. High schools serving predominately low-income and minority students have counselor-to-student ratios twice the national average – 1,000 students per counselor versus 470 students per counselor nationally.
Readiness by Middle Grades
Increasingly, high school principals and advocates for high-achieving, low-income students recognize that the time to intervene is earlier — in the middle grades — to ensure that more low-income students are emerging from middle school ready for advanced high school work.
Advanced Placement Courses
Students taking Advanced Placement courses in high school are more likely than their peers to earn college degrees on time, so access to AP courses have become a good measure of how we are serving high-achieving, low-income students. And the news is good: according to the College Board, the number of low-income students taking AP has more than quadrupled over the past decade — but those rates still remain lower than wealthier students.
Peer Support and Summer Programs
Isolation can be a major factor in the lives of low-income high achievers. Summer programs can both supplement learning and help build communities of social and emotional support for high school and beyond.
Better (and Earlier) Advising
As noted above, adequate counseling to challenge talented students and steer them toward applying and enrolling in college is lacking. However, success has been demonstrated in specific initiatives like the College Advising Corps, which has held 353,695 one-on-one meetings with students on such issues. Students who met with a Corps advisor are 23 percent more likely to apply to college than other seniors.
Further Reading / Research
Falling Out of the Lead: Following High Achievers Through High School and Beyond.
Bromberg, Marni and Christina Theokas (2014). The Education Trust.
A Level Playing Field? How College Readiness Standards Change the Accountability Game.
Dahlin, Michael and Beth Tarasawa (2013).
Mind the (Other) Gap! The Growing Excellence Gap in K-12 Education.
Plucker, Jonathan, Nathan Burroughs, and Ruiting Song (2010). Center for Evaluation & Education Policy.
Achievement Trap: How America Is Failing Millions of High-Achieving Students from Lower-Income Families.
Wyner, Josh, John Bridgeland and John J. Diiulio, Jr. (2008) Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.