Expert Commentary

Do high flyers maintain their altitude? Performance trends of top students

2011 study on high level of academic performance over time, and how these students compared to their mid- and lower-level peers.


Over the past 10 years, school-based initiatives such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have successfully raised the test scores of some lower-performing students. But with most U.S. educational funds directed towards cultivating minimal levels of competency, few federal programs focus on maximizing the potential of higher-achieving students, or “high flyers.”

A 2011 study conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, “Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students,” tracked two distinct cohorts — an elementary to middle-school cohort and a middle-school to high-school group — of 174,949 students from 2004 to 2010 to determine whether or not the students scoring in the top 10% of the standardized Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments (the “high flyers”) maintained their levels of academic performance over time, and how these students compared to their mid- and lower-level peers.

Key study findings include:

  • A majority of high-achieving students — roughly 59% — were still scoring 90% or above on the MAP assessment at the conclusion of the study. However, the academic status of approximately 41% of high-achieving students declined over the same time period. Although some high-performing students fell out of the 90th percentile, they typically did not fall far, rarely scoring below the 77% percentile.
  • “While minority students were underrepresented among high achievers at both the elementary/middle and middle/high school levels, the proportions of minority students in the high-achieving group proved relatively stable.” Students in poorer schools were also underrepresented, but the number of students scoring in the 90th percentile on the MAP test declined over time; girls performed better in reading than in math overall, but increased their representation in the MAP 90% percentile over time.
  • Top score declines of select “high flyers” were routinely offset by the improved scores of some of their peers: while 4,317, or 5.3%, of math high achievers in the elementary/middle school cohort moved out of the 90th percentile, for example, the performance of 5,745, or 7.0%, of students rose, resulting in an overall increase of 1,428 students in the 90th percentile.
  • The reading scores of the low-achieving elementary/middle school cohort increased by 48.4 points, while the scores of their high-performing counterparts increased 31.1 points.  These score patterns are replicated across disciplines and cohorts.

The study concludes, “Many of America’s future leaders… will almost certainly be the high achievers our schools today. While these children are not in short supply, this study suggests that we are not doing everything we could to nuture and sustain their promise, to increase their numbers and to assure that high-achieving minority students in high-poverty schools have every opportunity to reach their goals.”

Tags: youth