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Up to half of top students fail to maintain academic performance over time

Academic achievement over time

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute this week released the results of a study entitled "Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students," [PDF file] which sought to determine whether "high flyers"--students who scored at or above the 90th percentile-- successfully maintained their "altitude" over time.

While the majority of the high achieving students did maintain their academic status, the study found, approximately 30 to 50 percent did not.

Among elementary and middle school math students, 42.7 percent failed to maintain their high performance, and among elementary and middle school reading students, 44.1 percent failed to do so. Among middle and high school math students, 30.1 percent failed to maintain high performance, and among middle and high school reading students, 47.6 percent failed to do so.

"If America is to remain internationally competitive, secure and prosperous, we need to maximize the potential of all our children, including those at the top of the class," Fordham president Chester E. Finn, Jr., said in a statement. "Today's policy debate largely ignores this 'talented tenth.' This study shows that we're paying a heavy price for that neglect, as so many of our high flyers drift downward over the course of their academic careers."

The study examined more than 120,000 students in over 1,500 schools across the United States, following individual pupil progress in math and reading from third to eighth grade in one cohort and from six to tenth grade in another.

High-achieving students, the study found, also fail to improve as quickly in reading as their lower-achieving and average peers.

"We can't allow up to half of our nation's brightest students to fall from high-achieving ranks," Fordham vice president Michael J. Petrilli said in a statement. "Their academic plight is no less critical to America's future than the plights of their struggling peers."

The study, which was funded by the Kern Family Foundation and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, was authored by Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) analysts Yun Xiang, Michael Dahlin, John Cronin, Robert Theaker and Sarah Durant.