Start Early, Because “The Needle Of Academic Achievement Moves Slowly”

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Even at high-performing, wealthy high schools, students who have fallen far behind academically in 4th and 8th grade have less than a 1 in 3 chance of being ready for college or a career by the end of high school, write s Sarah Sparks of Education Week, reporting on a new study by the national testing group ACT Inc.:

“ACT found that only 10 percent of students who were far behind their peers in college- and career-readiness benchmarks in reading in 8th grade were able to meet readiness benchmarks in 12th grade. Other subjects were even harder to recoup: only 6 percent of students far behind in science and 3 percent of those far behind in math had caught up by the end of high school. Moreover, they found that only about 1 in 10 students who were ‘far off track’ in reading or math in 4th grade met the on-track benchmarks in 8th grade, suggesting these children’s academic gaps start early and never close.

School resources seem to make a difference in how well educators can boost students who fall behind, but not as much as one might think. At schools in which more than half of students lived in poverty, only 6 percent of students far behind in reading in 8th grade and 3 percent of those far behind in math and science were deemed ready for college and careers by the end of high school. The 10 percent best-performing high-poverty schools did better, preparing 17 percent of those who had fallen far behind in reading, 12 percent of those struggling in science, and 9 percent of those far behind in math in middle school.

Yet even in the 10 percent highest-performing schools with a majority of their students not in poverty, the outlook for a student who falls behind in elementary or middle school is pretty bleak: For students who performed more than a standard deviation below their peers in 8th grade, 32 percent caught up in reading, 21 percent caught up in science, and 17 percent caught up in math by 12th grade.

‘Relatively few high schools even got over 25 percent of their far-off kids caught up, and generally those were the more advantaged high schools,’ says ACT researcher Chrys Dougherty. ‘The lesson is that the needle of academic achievement moves slowly, because essentially you are building knowledge and skills that develop over time. It’s one of those pieces of research that when you tell people, they say, “We knew it all along,” but they don’t know it, because if they did, and they acted as if they knew it, they would be much more focused on early interventions.’” (Read more here.)

YES. It takes a long time to build up the knowledge and skills that allow older students to do well in high school and college. That’s why it’s so important to start building kids’ content knowledge in the early grades.

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