The Slippery Slope within Education: Ability vs Achievement

“Mom, what’s a ratio?”  I returned home from school one day with this question stuck in my mind.  I had been pulled from class to take a test.  No one warned me.  I wasn’t given a study guide or even told what was on the exam until it was placed in front of me.  The test seemed easy enough at first, but then I reached a section on “ratios.” I racked my brain for the definition.  An entire section of the test relied upon knowing this vocabulary word, but I’d never seen it before.  No one had defined it for me before.  So, I guessed, and I guessed wrong.  This simple term prevented me from being accepted into the double accelerated math track at school.  It cut off opportunities that I didn’t even know existed until that point in time. ​


While I firmly believe that admissions requirements and qualification criteria must be relevant to the program for which they are assigned, I also believe that we must give students every opportunity to reach their fullest potential.  An accelerated math program that effectively allows students to skip a year or more of math must ensure that the students in the program have the necessary background information, but this same requirement means that parents must seek out additional education opportunities for their children to ensure admittance into these programs.
When we first opened HEROES Academy, we accepted a variety of ability and achievement tests for admission.  However, these tests did not guarantee that students had the required skills and background knowledge that our classes required.  As such, we designed a placement test that allowed us to confirm that (1) the child was performing above grade level and (2) the child had the necessary background knowledge and skills to succeed in a specific class.  This policy meant that (1) some high achieving but not necessarily gifted students qualified (2) many gifted students were disqualified because of a lack of opportunities and, as such, low achievement. 

High achieving students with average abilities often either (1) stayed for no more than one course due to the increased rigor compared to a traditional school curriculum or (2) spent more time on task and more time studying at home to keep up with the coursework.  For those students that chose to stay and put in the extra effort, I commend them.  I will always support a child that wants to put in the work. 

We cannot, however, forget under-achieving or low-performing gifted students.  We see two types of gifted underachievers.  The first being those students who have the resources and opportunities but do not take advantage of them.  The second being those students without the resources and opportunities to allow them to reach their fullest potential.  Over the last few years, I see an increasing number of gifted students that fit into the latter category – students with perfect grades and awards for academic excellence – students who glide through school with little to no effort – but who leave school without critical skills in math, reading, and writing due to a failing education system.  Poor outcomes in low income or low performing schools is a prominent topic of discussion in our society, but many ignore or are unaware of the reduced outcomes coming from our top ranked schools across the country. 

At HEROES, we administer a battery of achievement tests to students from all over the state.  Nearly all these students are top-ranked students in their schools Each year, we see a steady decline in performance, including students from our state’s top rated schools.  I see significant correlation in learning outcomes within a given school.  I can pinpoint which schools fail to teach fractions, decimals, or even simple multiplication.  Students from certain schools are nearly guaranteed to place a year or more below grade level despite high grades and phenomenal results on standardized tests.  Students from schools without libraries or certified librarians score predictably low on reading comprehension tests. 

It comes as no surprise that the top NJ school districts are also some of the wealthiest districts across the state.  While at one time I might have believed that these results stemmed from a higher quality of education, I now understand that this disparity is increasingly reliant upon access to supplemental education outside the regular classroom.  Parents hire tutors to ensure their children are top-ranked within the school and, moreover, admitted into exclusive gifted and talented programs and accelerated classes.  This, in turn, ensures that their children are in class with other students whose families place equal emphasis on education, that their child will have the opportunity to complete numerous college credits through free AP classes upon reaching high school, and that their child will have an educational history “worthy” of top ranked universities. 

Despite spending significant time and money outside the classroom on student education, many students graduate without mastering core skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Tutoring centers and private tutors often focus on standardized test prep and “test taking skills” such as brute force methods for solving multiple choice problems rather than the actual concepts at hand.  As a result, students with outside assistance often have strong standardized test scores, but they are also unable to solve real-world problems that do not provide multiple choice options.  The real world, unfortunately, does not always provide us with four possible answers, and the ability to solve these questions does not indicate mastery of concepts. 

In many cases, students have significant holes in their learning.  Students may memorize their multiplication facts without ever fully understanding place value.  As a result, their numeracy skills are low.  These students are unable to determine if an answer seems reasonable nor are they able to solve problems which require the application of basic arithmetic.  I quite often find that students fail to understand the meaning of multiplication but rather see multiplication as a set of memorized tables; they cannot solve a multiplication problem beyond the twelve times twelve table without the use of a calculator. 

It seems as if vocabulary and writing instruction have come to a screeching halt.  I can hardly imagine the writing outcomes of average and below average students as the outcomes of our gifted students and honor roll students are so lack luster. Students entering high school can barely form a sentence that is neither a fragment nor a run on.  The use of creative spellings has become the norm rather than the exception with many students showing complete disregard for homophones.  Many of these issues are camouflaged by spell check and grammar check programs, but artificial intelligence cannot predict an author’s intention nor rectify what is not there. 

I no longer assume or expect that any of our gifted students are high performing – or even performing at what I believe to be grade-level expectations. Students entering HEROES Academy at ages 6 or 7 tend to perform well on our entrance exams, but this cannot be attributed to the schools.  These students are advanced readers because their parents read to them, spend time teaching them to read, and ensure that books are always available.  The math skills required at this level are often naturally taught at home – counting, addition, and subtraction are all concepts that many parents feel comfortable teaching.  Unfortunately, I see that these same students often fail to acquire new knowledge or skills once beginning school as parents decrease involvement with the assumption that their local school is providing an adequate education. Inflated test scores and grades disillusion parents, creating a false sense of security in the education system.  It is not until students reach college, or even their professional careers, that the shortfalls of their education come to light.   

As such, I’ve had to seriously consider the admission process at HEROES Academy which, for the last few years, has been heavily reliant upon achievement.  HEROES Academy’s new admission process is more inclusive rather than exclusive and allows gifted students with poor resources or educational environments to join our academic program.  Students may submit any one of many ability test reports to gain acceptance into our programs.  We will continue to accept students based on demonstrated high achievements to accommodate any student who wishes to put forth the effort to learn.  All students will need to take our placement test, as has been the process for many years, but students will no longer need to demonstrate above grade level achievements for admission purposes.  Students will continue to be placed into classes based on tested math and reading ability to ensure that each child is learning at an appropriate pace and place.  We will do our best to accommodate all gifted students of varying achievement levels and may provide tutoring at our discretion to address content gaps in student learning.  

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