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Talent on the Sidelines: The Widening Gap in Excellence


An alarming report on the current state of excellence in the United States has been released today.

The conclusion of the report “Talent on the Sidelines: Excellence Gaps and the Persistence of America’s Permanent Talent Underclass” is that the United States is relying on less than half of its talent, with large percentages of our brightest students not even getting a chance to enter the room.

University of Connecticut Professor Jonathan Plucker and colleagues at two other universities examined data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and state assessments. Their most striking finding is the under-representation of low-income and minority students among those performing at the highest levels of academic achievement.

While the percentage of white students scoring at the advanced level in Grade 4 mathematics increased from 2.9 percent to 9 percent between 1996 and 2011, the percentage of high-scoring black students barely budged, reaching 1.1 percent in 2011. The math scores based on economic background were even more dramatic, with students ineligible for free or reduced-price lunches improving from 3.1 percent in the advanced range in 1996 to 11.4 percent in 2011. Less affluent students, meanwhile, went from 0.3 percent scoring in the advanced range to 1.8 percent.

They put these findings in perspective: In Grade 8, 8% of all eighth graders reached advanced levels in mathematics, which translates to about 290,000 of the 3.6 million eighth graders that exist in the United States. This means that out of the 44% of all students eligible for free and reduced meals (about 1.6 million), less than 40,000 would score at advanced levels, about 160,000 fewer students than if low-income students performed as well academically as more affluent students. This means that schools are losing about 160,000 high-performing eighth grade students every year.

The researchers conclude that America has developed a "permanent talent underclass":

"In an age of increasing global competitiveness, it is somewhat harrowing to imagine a future in which the largest, fastest-growing segments of our K-12 student population have almost no students performing at advanced levels academically. In many states, including many of our largest, this is already the reality."

The report also offers state-by-state comparisons, where the lack of non-white and poorer students among the highest achievers can be even more stark than the national average. In North Carolina, for example, the percentage of black students with advanced scores in Grade 4 math rounds to zero, while in Texas, an impressive 17 percent of more well-off students have advanced scores in that category, compared to just 3 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Individual state profiles are available at the report web site (

As Plucker and colleagues note:

"If the diversity of the U.S. K-12 student population is not proportionally represented in our high-achieving students, one could argue that neither equity nor excellence has been achieved, with serious implications for the country’s future."

They also point out:

"Year after year, with billions and billions of dollars spent on interventions and policy initiatives that focus largely on minimum competency, the vast majority of our bright minority children, ELL students, and students of limited financial means underperform academically... It seems ominous that the United States appears to have a permanent underclass regarding academic talent, given the need for advanced intellectual skills in our information-based society. This phenomenon is especially troubling given that the percentage of poor and minority students is increasing."

The researchers also tracked reading scores and compared high achieving American students’ performance to their international peers, a comparison that found U.S. students lagging.

You can download the full report here.


In an earlier report in 2010, Plucker and colleagues found similarly depressing results, but they reported that there were limited signs of hope that the excellence gap might narrow. Now, just three years later, they are less optimistic, considering they found that the gap between white, relatively affluent students and their poorer, nonwhite classmates has only widened. As they pessimistically note:

"The data we explored for the current study should crush anyone’s optimism about the country’s success in developing academic talent: The rich are getting richer, so to speak (but not in all cases), and the poor continue to show evidence of incremental, insufficient progress."

Thankfully, the report does contain some policy recommendations. Here's an excerpt:

  1. START PAYING ATTENTION. When any new education policies are created, policymakers should ask themselves two questions: How will the proposed policy impact our highest achieving students? How will the proposed policy help more students achieve at the highest levels?
  2. INCLUDE THE PERFORMANCE OF ADVANCED STUDENTS IN STATE ACCOUNTABILITY SYSTEMS. Very few states include indicators of advanced achievement in their K-12 education accountability systems. This omission sends the implicit message that advanced achievement is neither important nor a goal, and as a result, the vast majority of other education policies, systems, and interventions align with the indicators that focus attention elsewhere.
  3. ACKNOWLEDGE THE MAJOR ROLE POVERTY PLAYS IN WIDENING EXCELLENCE GAPS. The dominant educational assumption in policy circles for the past 15 years has been that poverty is largely unsolvable, hence the need to “stop using poverty as an excuse.” That’s not surprising – students’ demographic characteristics are often used as an excuse to establish low expectations for them – but pretending we can close achievement and opportunity gaps in the absence of poverty reduction is a puzzling response to the issue.
  4. ADDRESS THE “LOW-HANGING POLICY FRUIT” IMMEDIATELY. Each state should quickly examine its policies that may help or hinder the promotion of high achievement in its K-12 schools.
  5. ACCELERATE RESEARCH ON ADVANCED LEARNING AND TALENT DEVELOPMENT. One reasonable criticism of the 2010 study was our reliance on standardized test data at the national and state levels. We agree that a broader range of indicators— for example, 21st century skills or measures of creative productivity—would be helpful for understanding the nature and impact of excellence gaps. However, reliable data on such indicators, in our experience, do not currently exist. Access to these data could dramatically transform policy debates about excellence and excellence gaps.
  6. IDENTIFY THE FEDERAL ROLE IN ADDRESSING LOW LEVELS OF EXCELLENCE AND EXCELLENCE GAPS. Federal support for excellence in K-12 education is largely nonexistent. The one federal research and intervention program in this area was eliminated mid-cycle, and federal education law, specifically the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, does not address advanced achievement or excellence gaps.


The researchers conclude their report with a really important question that I urge all educators and policy makers to deeply consider:

"The irony of the United States having an excellence problem is not lost on us, but it appears to be lost on the general public and our policymakers. In California, roughly 1% of Hispanic Grade 4 and Grade 8 students score advanced on the NAEP reading and math tests. In North Carolina, in Grade 4 math the percentage of Black students scoring advanced rounds to zero. In Texas, an impressive 17% of Grade 4 students not eligible for free/reduced priced lunch scored advanced in math ... but only 3% of eligible students scored advanced. If comparable results existed at the minimum competency level, there would be a furious, sustained uproar.

Why are such results at the advanced level acceptable?"

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Note: Portions of this post were excerpted from an official press release sent to me by Jonathan Plucker. Thanks to Plucker for bringing this important report to my attention.

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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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