They read a book quietly under their desks, pester the teacher for extra credit, or, perhaps, they simply check out and act up.
Every classroom has a few overachievers who perform above their grade level and don't feel challenged by the status quo. A new report suggests they are surprisingly common — in some cases, nearly half of all students in a given grade.
"The start of this was a little embarrassing," says Matthew Makel, who researches academically gifted children for Duke University's Talent Identification Program.
One day, a philanthropist asked one of Makel's colleagues, Jonathan Plucker at Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth, what should have been a simple question, "How many students score above grade level on standardized tests each year?"
They couldn't answer. So Makel, Plucker and a few fellow researchers took a closer look at the data. Their results have just been published as a policy brief (not a peer-reviewed study) by Johns Hopkins.
The authors studied statewide results on the Smarter Balanced tests in Wisconsin and California; statewide results on the Florida Standards Assessment; data from 33 states on the NWEA MAP test; and data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the "Nation's Report Card." The first two are high-stakes accountability tests, while the MAP test is usually given twice a year to benchmark student progress. The NAEP is a low-stakes national data collection.
Makel and his co-authors found that, on the NWEA, 35 percent of beginning fifth-graders were already scoring at levels you might only expect by the end of the year. And, on the NAEP, the top 25 percent of fourth-graders outscored the bottom 25 percent of eighth-graders every year but one — for 26 years straight.
On the state tests, the researchers took "grade level" to mean hitting the third-highest of four scoring levels — below basic, basic, proficient and advanced — for the grade above the grade being tested. In every case, the researchers found large numbers of overachievers. These are students who, by spring, meet or exceed the grade level standard for the following year.
According to the report:
That Florida figure isn't news to Lynda Hayes, director of the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School in Gainesville, Fla. The public school serves as a lab school for the University of Florida and accepts students by lottery from 31 Florida cities.
"I think aiming for grade-level achievement for all students is still an important goal for K-12 schools — but not to the detriment of growth and achievement for all students, including those that are achieving at the highest levels," Hayes says. "We have had extended conversations at our school about enriching and deepening learning rather than simply accelerating students through grade-level courses."
Ultimately, this meant big changes. In the past few years, P.K. Yonge has opened a new, designed-from-scratch physical space that allows for clustering teachers in large teams to give them extra time for collaboration, training and prep.
Today, the elementary school has three multi-age groups, each with 108-132 students and seven teachers: K-first grade, second-third grade and fourth-fifth grade. Students are grouped by ability and subject in ways that change throughout the year. In rare cases, they may be placed with other students who are two or more years older.
Andrew Ho says this report from Makel and his colleagues isn't nearly as surprising as it might seem. Ho is a student measurement expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has a word for the findings: "obviousness." He points out that large numbers of students will score both above and below the cutoff of a standardized test.
It's also important to note that a score on a single test is not synonymous with being ready to achieve at a given grade level — academically, socially or emotionally. And the effective distance between grade levels is smaller in middle and high school than it is in elementary school.
However, for Makel the key question remains: If there are so many overachievers, why isn't more being done nationally to make sure they are being challenged appropriately, regardless of age?
A large, national survey of districts from 2013 showed that two-thirds of middle schools offered acceleration by subject. Just under half offered acceleration by grade, but it's unclear how many students took advantage of those programs. Four out of five districts reported that state laws did not define "gifted and talented."
"There may be schools that do respond to these scores, and many students may be getting subject-specific or whole-grade acceleration. But there's no national policy, and many states and schools don't have policies on it either," says Makel.
Hayes compares traditional school design — both the physical spaces and systems — to an egg crate. She says, as long as teachers are forced to work in isolation with limited time for teamwork, professional development and lesson preparation, "achieving what is possible in response to learner variability will be impossible."
Further complicating matters, Hayes says, are the many bureaucratic rules and traditions enforced at the school, district and state level, including teacher evaluations based on student test scores, extensive federal reporting requirements, and curricula that "tell teachers what to teach and when and for how long no matter who the students are in front of them."
Dallas Dance, the superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, struggles with these forces on a districtwide scale. This fall, he proposed a policy change to how his schools handle gifted and talented students.
Previously, students had to be nominated for testing by a teacher or parent and were selected in third and fifth grades only. Now, Baltimore County will move to a universal screening process. And, rather than limit enrichment and acceleration to a predetermined group, Dance wants to allow for more flexible grouping, so that a student who needs "advanced academics" in just one subject or for a period of time can get it.
"We want to make sure that, in every area, we can extend, accelerate or enrich on an ongoing basis," Dance says. He agrees with the Johns Hopkins findings that there are large numbers of undiscovered overachievers who could benefit from these resources. The change in policy, though, has proved controversial, Dance says, and it's currently under review by the district's board of education.